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Google: fragmentation is "up to manufacturers"
Google’s head of engineering for Android, Hiroshi Lockheimer has said that, although more and more devices will be upgraded to Android 4+ in the near future, in the end, it depends on the manufacturers which devices they upgrade, and which they don’t. Lockheimer said that Google will never operate like Apple, where they only have a handful of devices, which are not that different from each other year after year, are made only by Apple, and therefore it’s much easier to keep them upgraded for years.
“Our pie chart [showing which user is on which software version] is always going to look a little different to [Apple’s] because the nature of our ecosystems are a bit different. In that sense I’m OK with that,” said Lockheimer.“For some manufacturers when we release a new version they’re in the middle of a cycle of development so it might not fit at the time. It’s up to the manufacturers to see what their targets are; some may say we want to be the first one, or they may decide a fully customised reskinned experience is what they want to do. Android is open source because we want manufacturers to have that freedom.”
Motorola announced the Droid RAZR with Gingerbread on board, a day before Google and Samsung announced the Galaxy Nexus with Android 4.0. These sort of things are going to happen for as long as Google will release their new versions of Android so often, and without giving more manufacturers early access to Android.
Android’s model is a lot more similar to Windows than it is to Apple’s iOS, because Apple can keep their devices in house as long as they need to make sure the latest version of iOS arrives with the latest hardware. Microsoft has a different model for Windows, and for Windows Phone too, but it’s a lot more evident how Microsoft’s model works with the desktop version of Windows.
Microsoft only releases a major version of Windows every three years, and way before the version is released (like a year earlier, when they’re starting to show their preview version), they start working with manufacturers to port them on their new hardware, and make sure they have the proper drivers for it. This way, as soon as Microsoft launches the new version of Windows, you’ll start seeing manufacturers selling only machines with the new version of Windows, unless the market is rejecting that version. That happened with Vista, and it might happen again with Windows 8, especially with enterprise customers, which will still prefer Windows 7 machines.
That doesn’t mean Microsoft is fixing the “fragmentation” of Windows overnight. It usually takes around five years to get the new version of Windows to even 50% of the market. But the point is that a longer product cycle, and enough time given to manufacturers ahead of the release, will make them release their new machines with the new OS at the right time.
In the mobile world, these lifecycles are a lot shorter anyway, and both Microsoft and Apple take a full year to release a new major version of their OS. Microsoft might even expand that to 18 month for WP 8.5 to arrive after WP8, and then release WP9 at the same time with Windows 9, three years later.
If Google would at least change their OS lifecycle from six months to a year, they would give manufacturers (and users) a lot more time to get ready for the new major release, which is something I’ve discussed in my previous article on fixing fragmentation. The only downside I see, though, is that, unless Google changes the core of Android pretty significantly every year, manufacturers might have too much time on their hands to skin the heck out of Android by the time a new version is released. That would only serve to increase the gap between how stock Android looks and how the OEM’s skinned versions of Android look.
In the end, we might just have to live with the fact that we can’t get a ton of device options, that have the same OS but also a lot of customization, while expecting full standardization of the platform. The best we can hope for is a pretty good compromise between Google and manufacturers, and to see as many stock Android devices as possible, like the Nexus 7, or the five devices we’re going to see launched with Android 5.0 this fall.