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Is OS fragmentation an avoidable inconvenience or Android's greatest strength?

With 38.5% of Android users still running Gingerbread is it time to re-consider the fragmented Android ecosystem, or is the OS stronger than ever due to a wide range of supported devices?
May 2, 2013

Google Lawn Android Versions
Source: Neowin

We saw some interesting stats this morning regarding the distribution of Android versions. Gingerbread still dominates, but Jelly Bean has now surpassed Ice Cream Sandwich. Surprisingly some users are still lingering on Froyo and Éclair, which made me appreciate just how fragmented our favourite operating system has become.

Until earlier I hadn’t really thought about this age-old debate for a while, but what better time to re-consider the old arguments than now. Here are my thoughts regarding some of the common arguments about the fragmented Android operating system.

Lazy Carriers

If anything this is probably my biggest (only?) complaint about Android, there is no pressure from Google for carriers to offer consumers the latest versions of Android. Even if their handsets are capable of running it and an Android update is released by the manufacturer, carriers are painstaking slow at delivering upgrades, if they even bother at all. The reason for this is, of course, the cost, if a carrier can save money by not having to re-design its bloat-ware to be compatible with a new version of Android they will avoid doing so. Plus it’s a bonus if they can convince users to purchase new handsets rather than prolong the life-span of existing models through updates.

I’m not going to attempt to defend this, but I will say that it’s a problem that we the consumer can solve without the need Google to force carriers to bear the cost of updating. If, like me, you’d like carriers to start upgrading handsets more regularly we have the choice to buy Nexus devices or SIM-free handsets, or simply moving contracts over to providers who are better at keeping things up to date.

LG Nexus 4
My next handset will probably be a Nexus device, I’m tired of waiting for carrier updates.

This is certainly the best complaint against Google allowing Android to fragment so easily, 1-0 to the cons.

Standing in the way of progress?

I’m sure you’ve all heard the argument that we’d all be better off if Google could push out updates to handsets just like Apple does. That progress is slowed down by the time it takes for updates to reach consumers, and that we’d be better off if manufactures were contractually obliged to provide consumers with the latest features. Only 2.3% of users are currently running the latest version of Android 4.2.x, which certainly proves that users aren’t as up to date as they good be.

My response: try out Cyanogenmod, Paranoid Android, or a variety of other ROMs then come back to me. I’m running Android 4.2.2 for day to day use on my old Galaxy S2 thanks to CM10.1. I know that rooting and fiddling around with backups and zip files isn’t for everyone, and on some devices it can be a really difficult process. Open-source has mostly solved this problem for Android, providing that users are prepared to learn a little about ROMs. But I suppose that this has to count against fragmentation, as many consumers are still missing out on the latest features.

Keeping your old handset or buying on a budget 

Ok so pro fragmentation isn’t doing very well so far, but there are some good reasons, besides lazy carriers, as to why Gingerbread is still the predominant Android version, even though it was released all the way back at the end of 2010. Some level of handset retention is always going to happen, for example popular mid-range smartphones like the Galaxy Ace are still running Gingerbread. Another reason is also that emerging markets are still picking up mid and more budget orientated products which simply aren’t capable of running newer version of Android.

Sony Xperia X10
I still have my first Android phone, the Xperia X10. Stuck on Gingerbread 2.3.3 due to old hardware, it’s still a perfectly serviceable phone more than three years after release.

For example, to have your product certified by Google as capable of running Jelly Bean your device must have at least 340MB of memory available to the kernel and userspace, so old 258MB smartphones are out of the running for an update. As we know, Android is doing well in emerging markets and is picking up significant shares of the market. Without them, Android would be a smaller platform and consumers would be missing out.

Of course this means that budget consumers can start running into compatibility issues with newer apps, there’s an obvious a lack of support for new features, and eventually these handsets are left incompatible with new technologies, something that Firefox OS is keen to address.

But something is better than nothing, and on the whole fragmentation tends to be a boon for mid-range and low-end consumers. The greatest strength of a “fragmented” operating system is that it keeps the platform open to a much wider range of budgets, which makes the score 2-1.

App development/compatibility issues

Another potential problem is that some new apps fail to support aging versions of Android, but development times and costs are clearly the issue here. I myself have seen quite a few apps on the market that now only support Android 4.0 and up, which only accounts for 55.9% of all Android users, and some that don’t yet work with Android 4.2.2. It’s a pain when you’re favourite app bugs out due to an update; I’ve experienced it myself a few times.

On the other hand, there’s nothing preventing app developers from building and supporting software designed for older or newer versions of Android, and most developers do. The market works on simple demand economics, if people are still using Gingerbread developers will support it, when a new version of Android comes out developers will build apps for it. Sure it takes a little bit more time than enforcing a standard, but eventually everything is covered.

It’s not an argument that I think holds a lot of weight behind it. I’m going to call this all square at 2-2.

Consumer Choice

Having considered all these points I’ve come to the conclusion that fragmentation certainly has it’s problems, however we already have solutions for most of them.  On the whole, it probably isn’t something which should be held as a black mark against the Android operating system. Despite the fact that there are more Android versions than ever before, there are more solutions available to deal with the little issues associated with fragmentation.

There are Nexus devices if you want to avoid carrier update delays, yet there are still Gingerbread devices around if you’re looking for something on a budget. A fragmented system allows consumers and developers alike to find products which fit their particular niche, and that, in my opinion, is one of Android’s greatest strengths. If we like new features then we can upgrade to a new handset or ROM and developers will follow consumers, but we’ll never be forced to use features that we don’t like.

As far as I’m concerned this free movement of consumers and developers ensures a healthy balance of diligence and innovation. How about you, do you believe that it’s better to leave the platform truly open, or are the old lingering Android versions holding the rest of us back?