It exists and it can be a pain for everyone from manufacturers to consumers and developers.
Fragmentation on Android is certainly debatable. Apple loves to pull a punch or two in their fight against Google’s mobile OS and fragmentation always comes up. But what exactly is fragmentation and does it really effect Android users? I think it does. Let me explain.
When you buy an iPhone, you currently have three to chose from- the iPhone 3GS, the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 4S. Someone who has previously bought an iPhone will either have the original iPhone or the iPhone 3G making the total number of Smartphones based on the iOS platform 5. Every single iPhone has a 3.5” screen in a portrait format and one button below the screen.
Now lets talk about the Android space where 5 phones are released every week. These phones have completely different screen sizes, resolutions, form factors and button placements. For example, we just published LG’s Optimus VU Press Release yesterday which has a 5” screen with a 768×1024 resolution in a 4:3 format making it a bit squarish in form factor. Samsung’s hero product, the Galaxy Note has a bigger 5.3” screen with an 800×1280 resolution but prefers the big and tall form factor while Motorola’s RAZR has 4.3” with a 480×960 resolution and HTC Sensation XL has a 4.7” screen with a 480×800 resolution. That’s just the flagship devices of the top four Android smartphone manufacturers- forget their other models and the countless Chinese manufacturers that make Android phones. That insane amount of choices is fragmentation.
One side of the camp will argue that it’s good to have choice. While I agree that a little bit of choice is good, I don’t think what is happening in the Android space is good for the consumer. First, their newly bought super high-end Smartphone becomes a thing of the past within a matter of months and second, official updates are something you’re always waiting for. Case in point- Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.
Google rolled out Android 4.0 ICS last year on their flagship Android device- the Galaxy Nexus. However, not a single Android based Smartphone has received the update to ICS until now- not even one by Samsung that made the Galaxy Nexus for Google. Two months is a long time in a Smartphone’s life, especially in the Android zone, and phone manufacturers must have received the update at least a couple of months earlier. Yet, it’s nowhere to be found. Compare that to a new iOS release where iPhones almost immediately receive the update.
Why is this so? Because there are way too many form factors and custom UIs that exist in the Android space and updating each one of them is not an easy task. Just look at the sheer number of Galaxy Smartphones by Samsung and their Touchwiz UI. For them to support ICS on their devices requires a considerable amount of work and testing. Forget upgrading- even a phone as new as the LG Optimus VU that is to be released next month comes with the older Gingerbread OS and not Ice Cream Sandwich. Because the amount of work required to upgrade it would significantly delay the launch of the phone. Imagine if a phone manufacturer has such a hard time simply supporting and posting it’s custom UI on its own devices, how hard would it be for an independent developer to write an application that works consistently across the hundreds of Android devices. You don’t hear that complain from developers working on the iOS platform.
That, is the effect of fragmentation. While it may allow the consumer an incredibly large number of Smartphones to chose from, in the longer run, it becomes much harder to support and upgrade these devices turning customers into ex-customers. I’ll leave you with this video from Saturday Night Live which doesn’t have anything to do with fragmentation in Android but does make a mockery of the US based carrier Verizon and how they confuse the end user with an insane number of choices in the Smartphone space. The idea is somewhat similar.