Android – Pretty jigsaw


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Fragmentation in Android is likely to get worse this year not better.

  • The fragmentation of Android is an issue that has plagued the ecosystem since the day that it launched.
  • It suffers from both horizontal fragmentation where handset makers make alterations for their own purposes and vertical fragmentation where there are lots of different revisions of the code in live devices.
  • Fragmentation is a nightmare for developers as their apps often have to be adapted to run on the different versions which results in added costs and often a poor user experience.
  • Currently, Gingerbread (2.3) makes up around 45% of all Android devices with the latest version Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0) and Jelly Bean (4.1) making up another 45% or so (engadget).
  • Many commentators are using the rapid deployment version 4 across devices as an indicator that the endemic fragmentation is getting better but I think that it is about to get worse.
  • Version 4 is currently being deployed on new devices at the high end and older high-end devices are being updated over the air.
  • In this segment, I would agree that the fragmentation in improving.
  • However in the lower tiers, where the volume really is, it’s a different story.
  • This is because this segment is basically about getting a smartphone with the largest screen possible into the hands of the user at the lowest possible price.
  • All of the budget is put into screen real estate leaving hardware barely able to run Android.
  • Hence, these manufacturers tend to use Gingerbread, as the minimal hardware wont support version 4, and simply load the source code onto the device with no testing or optimisation.
  • The result is sub $100 Android which a large screen that barely works.
  • For the I-have-a-smartphone-so-I-can-be-like-everyone-else segment this does not matter yet and it is this segment where all the growth will be this year.
  • Hence I suspect that we will not see Gingerbread disappear as “everyone updates to 4”.
  • Quite the reverse in fact as the majority of new devices selling simply wont be able to handle it.
  • I would not be surprised to see Gingerbread’s share actually increase over the course of 2013.
  • This basically implies that Android will separate into a high and a low end with the two having less and less to do with each other.
  • This is a nightmare for developers but is a golden opportunity for the gaggle of ecosystems jostling to make an impact in emerging markets.
  • Top of the list remains Microsoft which promises a great user experience and is one that should increase its relevance this year if it can teach users to appreciate its proposition. 

16 thoughts on “Android – Pretty jigsaw

  1. Hullo Richard. Good to meet you on Monday.

    Not convinced about the android fragmentation schtick. From an end user perspective anyway its a non-issue. Can’t think of any app I’ve wanted which hasn’t run on GB ROMs (apart from possibly Chrome) – probably a lot more apps which don’t run on my original iPad due to iOS6 depreciation!

    Accepted this doesn’t meant the app dev experience isn’t nightmarish (and I hear the same things as you that it is) but I suspect:

    1) As Android matures major function updates decrease, lessening the version pain. From a basic usage perspective GB is actually pretty adequate – its more the layer of polish on top that improves with ICS/JB. The fact that ICS => JB isn’t perceived as that big a jump is an example of this.
    2) Is the GB/ICS divide really that big? Follow Holo design guidelines and use the compatibility library and it isn’t as painful maintaining compatibility as you think.
    3) As the platform matures better tools (e.g. DeviceAnywhere) help you to test against multiple devices. NB of course if Samsung continue to take over the world a significant amount of target user wallet will be concentrate on just half a dozen devices…

    Regarding the low end / fragmentation point surely the proliferation of devices is better rather than worse for fragmentation?

    1) By definition the no-names don’t customise their own hardware as much – they just take standard off the shelf platforms from Mediatek et al. Therefore this reduces fragmentation as once the platform supports next version it becomes much /easier/ to get it onto new devices.
    2) Low-end devices tend to be much closer to stock Android. Again reduces the amount of customisation/tinkering in software to trip up an app developer.

    Was surprised to see Android app store apps catching up on iOS app store number so quickly – fragmentation doesn’t seem to have held things back in that regard. Then again its only the top hundred or so apps that probly really count – again the guys who build these are the guys who have resources to test for multiple devices.

    Catch you again soon!


  2. Hi Jon..likewise good to catch up…..
    on 1) I think that the releases will continue to be a large jump. This is because this is how Google attempts to control fragmentation. when someone forks the source code, Goog accelerates the new release with new features to make to fork obsolete. If the upgrade features are only small then it wont have the same effect. I suspect that Google will continue to keep Android rapidly eveolving in order to keep everyone on its code…its killing of oPhone is evidence of this.
    2) I think they are quite big. I am referring to native code here not Dalvic. I think that as performance expecatations increase, the trend will be back towards native and here Android is still a real mess.
    3) Agree,.

    On the low end..what I meant was fragmentation of the whole platform. within the lowe end everyone is doing the same and so the fragmentation is not so bad within that segment but it seems to be diverging rapidly from the high end…that is what i was referring to,,,

  3. Hi Richard,

    I’d take a slightly different spin on Android fragmentation. I struggled to find ANY Android 2.3 devices at MWC. That doesn’t mean they’re not out there, just that they’re now out at the far end of the tail, and selling to relatively unattractive users. But on the other hand, the price range now stretches from $45 (wholesale) to $600+ and screens from 3.5 inches to 10 inches with something at every half-inch increment in between. So it may be that device capability range becomes a more important issue than the OS version range over time.

    Also, the 2G Android 4.0 $50 phones I played with were perfectly usable (at least in terms of the built-in apps)


    • Interesting you say that…every $50 Android phone that I have seen tested under lab conditions performs horribly…

      Agree at the moment the tail is very unattractive…but I suspect that it miyght get a bit more attractive with time. These are users who just want the largest screen possible…next time round they may realise they bought a LCD paperweight and want something more.

  4. As a third party developer I wouldn’t be that worried, as long as I know which devices my customers are using. If you are developing paid-for apps for instance, you can safely ignore the cheap end, as number of people there willing to pay for apps is essentially zero.

    • That is a fair point but I am not sure it will always be that way..right now its a show me market..give me any old device and I dont care…when people realise that those devices are really poor I think that will begin to change…Then as an app developer you might want to address that segment….

  5. “The fragmentation of Android is an issue that has plagued the ecosystem since the day that it launched. ”

    Plagued it all the way to 70% global smartphone market share. Against the uniquely non-fragmented iPhone, global mobile powerhouses RIM, Nokia and Microsoft and their endless billions of marketing and engineering dollars. Dragging this “fragmentation” anchor the whole way, facing regular articles about fragmentation even before the first product shipped at retail. hm. I’m not following the logic here. Could you maybe dig a little deeper into detail about how without this fatal flaw Android could own, say, 100% of the global smartphone market?

    And of the others: how did they miss not capitalizing on this horrific framentation failure?

    • I believe that this is because Android is currently a hardware driven market. Users want an iPhone but cant afford it and so buy the cheapest thing they can find that looks like it so that they can show it off. These phones offer very poor performance and when these users have realised this, I think that they will look a little harder next time.

      This is when functionality and fragmentation will start to affect the appeal of this ecosystem which frnakly I think suffers from very low loyalty

      • Here’s a nice loyalty and satisfaction survey from Brand Keys: Summary: Android, Samsung and Amazon now top even Apple’s legendary brand loyalty for mobile devices including smartphones and tablets.

        Another one from On Device Research: Summary: 4 Android smartphones beat out even the iPhone 5.

        So what you “think” appears very much at odds with the professionally published satisfaction surveys. Care to comment on that? Have you got some survey results to share with us?

        • Cast your mind back to 2005 and 2006. The same surveys at that time said that Symbian and Nokia were the best and that when those users were going to buy another device 70% of them would by Symbian and Nokia once again. Then the iPhone happened and it turned out that actually those surveys were poor indicators because user loyalty is fickle and in fact if something better is available, they will switch their loyalty.

          Usage of Android devices is still lagging far behind that of iOS on a comparative basis. Why?..because engagement is lower. If engagement is lower then loyalty is lower as these users are less wedded to their devices. Hence more likely to switch given the option of something better. That to me is a far better indicator of real satisfaction with an ecosystem than a survey that measures devices and what has been shown to be a very fickle statistic.

          • “Usage of Android devices is still lagging far behind that of iOS on a comparative basis.”

            Android and iOS have saturated the mature markets and should achieve relatively static share there until some truly disruptive new technology emerges. In emerging BRIC and Africa markets that aren’t saturated Android is trending 90% because “fragmentation” allows for smartphones that are within reach of the lower budgets of the people there. So much so that the Chinese government is concerned that Android has become too powerful – and Google doesn’t even have a presence in China, nor any way for the government to impact them there, nor any way to influence adoption of Android in China. Google gave that up after the spying incident, when they abandoned Windows PCs and China both. They had to replace Eric Schmidt as CEO as well, because he was not OK with abandoning the China market. iPhone is a status symbol in China and if you can afford one, you must have it – but the people who can afford an Android phone are far more numerous. By making Android free and open, Google is breaking down the Great Firewall of China and while the Chinese government is concerned about the issue, there doesn’t seem to be anything they can do about it.

            China being China, if Windows Phone worked better they would probably steal that. They don’t have a lot of respect for IP rights in China. So obviously Android both works better and doesn’t have to be stolen because Google gives it away for free.

            People go from iOS to Android, or the reverse generally. Or from some other to one of those two. They don’t go from iOS or Android to some third option. If this wasn’t true, iOS and Android would not now control over 90% of all global mobile sales, trending up.

            Because Android dominates the growth markets, not only will its stellar expansion continue – it will continue to grow, continuing to squeeze Apple out of global share (but not units or margin), and the Apple/Android pair will continue to demolish everyone else until by the end of the year the two will own 96% of the entire mobile device market – and more then 3x the entire Windows PC market by both units and dollars – and definitely profits. Everyone else will be eking their bit out of their leavings – the crumbs that fall from their table, not eating their lunch.

            And that brings us to Nokia. Nokia killed Symbian at the height of its glory – if they still sold Symbian phones they would still have 20% market share. People loved Symbian more than was reasonable and the Symbian app market and developer ecosystem was at its peak almost as large as Android’s and the iOS one is now. But Nokia went Windows Phone, and Symbian users weren’t willing to do Windows Phone no matter how much they loved Nokia. Nokia was unable to convert a significant number of their Symbian customers to Windows Phone – and now they’ve lost them all and there is no hope of converting them in the future. If you polled former Symbian users for their satisfaction with Symbian now, it probably still would give Android a run for its money. But no matter how much the customers liked it, it’s not available now because Nokia’s CEO had to kill it to establish he was committed to Windows Phone. If Nokia recanted and re-issued Symbian then Nokia Symbian lovers would still buy it, people would still develop apps for it, it would rise again from the dead. But they won’t and they now can’t as they’ve killed it dead and then sold the corpse to Accenture. That’s not Symbian’s fault, and not going to recur with any other mobile OS.

            Most of the web usage and app usage stats I see are either tools that don’t fully expose what’s happening or have so much time lag in their reportage that they don’t reflect that the Android installed base only passed the iOS installed base in raw numbers last November and it will take a while for the reportage to catch up with the facts now that Android is outselling iOS on phones by a ratio of 3:1. iOS had a head start, so of course it had a considerably larger installed base until it didn’t.

            I’m not biased agains iPhones. They’re great phones, media players, app machines, personal connectivity devices. I’ve bought three of them recently for my kids and one for my wife because they prefer them and my kids adore them. My wife prefers it for the status. That means in my house iPhones outsell Android phones 4:1. If my house and wallet were typical it would be all over but the crying for Samsung. The Apple cathedral isn’t for me. I prefer the bazaar as a technologist and nerd – but that’s a personal choice and I respect the choices of others. There’s nothing wrong with Apple’s cathedral other than I don’t prefer it. It lacks the choices, or if you prefer, the “fragmentation” that I crave. And apparently I’m not alone in this preference. But no, I think highly of the iPhone. I think it’s a great device, reasonably priced, and Apple is making them as fast as they can, selling and making good profit on every one! Definitely more economically successful than all Android phone sellers. It’s just not for me as I require more control of my gear and am capable of handling more control of my gear.

            I can’t find fault with the iPad either other than I don’t prefer the Apple Cathedral. Certainly there is enough demand to meet Apple’s ability to build the thing so any fault I could find with it would be silly. How could I dare say that I could improve on a thing a company can’t make enough of to meet demand? What is the point of improving on the product at that point? To cause riots? But the Android tabs are sufficient to my purpose and suit me better as they include things like SDHC that iPads will never have.

            Now since I’ve thoroughly debunked the “fragmentation” issue and the “loyalty” issue, and the “history” issue – and even the “bias” issue, it’s time for you to dig deep into your playbook, move the goalposts yet again and bring up malware. We may as well make the grand circuit, hit all the bases and make the discussion complete. Don’t you agree?

          • OK then…one at a time…sorry have been on the road hence the lateness of my reply,,,

            1) China. what you say is true. China will just take Android and fragment it. They will rip out everything and replace it with its own stuff. In fact HUawei and Baidu are doing precisiely this. They wont say if its Android or not but its linux based and I bet it is.

            2) Android will continue to grow but only really in the show me markets. Usage is very low and its a very cheap option. If poeple want more from their devices they will be willing to look at other options.

            3) Nokia. Wrong. Nokia should have killed Symbian LONG before it did. The software was end of life and there was not much one could do with it beyond a basic smartphone. all the apps were written in native and so porting would hev been very difficult. Dont get me wrong Nokia screwed this up in many many other ways but killing Symbian was not one of them.

            I dont think you have debunked anything you have stated a reaosnable and well argued opinion. Its just not one I share.

  6. I’ve never been particularly convinced by this “fragmentation” argument. Every platform that is popular has this ‘problem’, it’s the very nature of selling one OS to many people. We didn’t and don’t complain that MS Windows is available on many different classes of computers, and different versions. Dealing with this is just *part of writing software*. If you want to write for the world then you have to deal with cheaper hardware.

    As a developer in Android I just don’t see the massive problem. Android has good developer support for different platform capabilities.

    I have no idea how you can argue that a fragmented Android is an opportunity for other ecosystems… ie completely different operating systems which need different skills. Surely that is “fragmentation max”? There’s no reason not to think those ecosystems won’t suffer from the same problem if they grow.

  7. This is because a poor user experience leads to a loss of loyalty. Next time round these users will be more willing to try something else. That something else is most likely to be another ecosystem.

    its not a massive problem now as a large part of Android users dont buy apps. I can see that changing over time. Also, I have seen a trend back towards native especially for gaming and in Native the fragmentation is a real problem just like it was for J2ME

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