Fragmentation Issue Looms Large for Android

Carl Weinschenk

One of the time-ticking time bombs for Google’s Android — sort of its version of demographics and the Republican party — is fragmentation.

The problem is pretty simple. The Android operating system (OS) is used by many manufacturers and many different types of devices. At the same time, Google releases new versions of the OS on a fairly regular basis. The result is, in a highly technical engineering parlance, a mess. More specifically, the multiplicity of types of devices (“form factors”), variants of Android and large number of manufacturers — each of which may have a somewhat different way of doing things — means that features and functions don’t work across the entire scope of Android-based devices.

This is a real and significant threat to the future of the OS. The bottom line is that open source has in a few years gone from a great concept with little market share to a massively distributed computing platform that dominates the industry. Fragmentation, now more than ever, is looming threat number one.

Google is taking the bull by the horns. CNET and other sites report that the company is modifying the terms of its software development kit (SDK) to at least in part confront the problem. Section 3.4 of the new agreement reads this way:

3.4 You agree that you will not take any actions that may cause or result in the fragmentation of Android, including but not limited to distributing, participating in the creation of, or promoting in any way a software development kit derived from the SDK.

The prohibition probably was inevitable, but seems to fall short on at least two fronts. The first is that it is vague. Indeed, it probably couldn’t be vaguer. The lines between what is permissible and what is off limits will be a moving target — one controlled by Google. Hopefully, enough subsidiary information will emerge to give developers an idea of how far onto the ice they can go.

The other problem with the tweak to the terms of the SDK doesn’t confront the biggest source of the trouble, which is that there are so many versions of Android available that the problem — end users not being able to use the features and functions of their devices that they expect and therefore being disappointed — is inevitable.

Google names its OSes after desserts. A look at the menu suggests how disperse — fragmented really is the right word — the family is. TechRadar reported earlier this month on statistics Google collected from its Google Play app store during a 14-day period. The study revealed that 54 percent of Android devices rely on Gingerbread. That version of Android — Android 2.3 — was released in 2010, which is a long time ago in OS years. Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean, which technically is a candy, not a dessert) is in use by only 2.7 percent of devices. The bottom line is that the vast majority of Android devices in use don’t do the best things of which the OS is capable. The Register, in its story on the new SDK rules, makes that point:

On first blush, the new rule may seem a little odd. Many Android developers agree that fragmentation of the platform is a problem, but they typically pin the blame on Google, handset makers, and mobile carriers, rather than on their own behavior.


The Register has it right: The lion’s share of the problem for Google is in how it and its partners manage its OS releases, not what programmers do. Coming to grips with that will be as important to the company as understanding the changing nature of the electorate will be to the GOP.



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