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Android Fragmentation: What does it mean to you?



blog-0288044001331567071.jpgby Jeff Foster

Sprint 4G Rollout Updates

Monday, March 12, 2012 - 11:00 AM MDT


Linux’s biggest success story for the end-user is Android. Some analysts have predicted that Android could become the number one OS for smart phones in the world. Others have speculated that the iPhone and iOS will be Androids downfall. I don’t think so. I think the iPhone is a great phone and Apple has done well in establishing a market for it, and with it, a rabid consumer base. However, you will likely never see a new inexpensive iPhone. As all Apple lovers know, Apple prefers to be on the high-end of the consumer scale and they don’t sell anything cheap. So Apple will have a hard time exploiting the market penetration that Android allows with the variety of devices offered.


The other OS’es? Some such as Windows are trying to make a mark, but the jury is still out. Blackberry? Tizen? webOS? Too little, too late or not fast enough off the mark. So what could go wrong? Android doesn’t have to worry about the competition; its manufacturing and carrier partners are the cause of concern.


Let’s review, once a new version of Android is released, it can take three to six months before the consumer gets it. First, the chipmakers have to configure Android to run on its particular chip set. Then the device manufacturers (OEM’s): HTC, Motorola, Samsung etc., place their UI’s on top of Android. The most common UI’s are Motoblur, Sense and Touchwiz. Then the carriers get hold of it and add their own variety of applications which has become known to the tech savvy as “bloatware”.


All these additions have to work, first by the chipmakers, then the OEM’s and finally the carriers before we get the latest Android OS in our hands. Say what you will about Apple, but they have their support structure down pat. Of course, it’s much easier for them to do updates with two to three hardware configurations, made by one manufacturer that also happens to be the software developer.


The three different types of fragmentation that affects Android users.


Operating/Component Systems


Due to the number of different devices that the OEM’s produce and the different UI’s they develop to run on top of Android to give it the manufacturer’s particular branded look, the specifications of the device will have a lot to do with the amount of OS support the OEM will give it. Our question is; will the device be future-proofed for additional upgrades? My view? High and mid level devices should be supported for at least 2 years. The OEM’s allegedly work at keeping all its devices on the most recent version of Android and also determine which device will be upgraded and which won’t base on the capability of the components to handle an up rated version of the software. This is a cause of frustration when it seems that a biased and arbitrary decision is made when one device is upgraded by one OEM, but a similar device with similar specifications is denied by another.




This can also be called device fragmentation. Some devices have camera buttons, gamepads, keyboards, and kickstands. OEM’s have to configure Android to work with different settings and features of their devices. Developers can also be caught in a bind with different specifications from different OEM’s. For example, some apps have been seen not to scale effectively because of different screen resolutions. As more devices move to 720p and 1080p, this will become less of an issue since developers will catch up to meet the new guidelines.


Android has to be configured to work with all the different attributes that devices have, it’s not one size fits all. This is another determination used by the OEM in determining if a device can be upgraded.


User Interface


User Interface fragmentation can be attributed to the skins that the OEM’s run on top of Android. As mentioned before, Sense, Motoblur, and TouchWiz are the three main User Interfaces seen by the public. From icons to unlocking the device to setting up an email account, these skins developed by the OEM’s fragment the user interface on Android. These skins are also the main contributor to Operating System fragmentation.


For those who believe Android will become the best operating system in the world, fragmentation is still an important issue. Since fragmentation means different things to different people, hopefully, this will help in terms of being specific in detailing the actual effects that fragmentation causes. Understanding that there are different types of fragmentation is helpful in understanding the issues facing you the consumer and the industry. Android will continue to get better, and some speculate that fragmentation will persist as an obstacle, but it won’t ruin Android.




Fragementation image courtesy of obamapacman.org.


Sources: ZDnet.com, DroidLife


Recommended Comments

Many have said it before but I will say it again. Carriers and device manufacturers should be allowed to add their overlays and customization but should also be required to make available an up to date AOSP build, with source, to every device they sell to remain part of the open handset alliance.


They have to make these builds anyway before they can add their overlays. Users and developers should have access to these builds.


Edit: They also should be forced to open the bootloaders on every phone sold.

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