Android fragmentation: A problem without a (real) solution?

Posted: December 24, 2012 in Mobile Phone
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Ever since I went into the Android world in 2011, I was aware that my new phone was not the “top-of-the-line” anymore. By the time the Samsung Galaxy Spica was out. it was one of the best devices out there. On 2011, it was a “good” device, but there were better ones. And it’s not just about hardware specs, but OS.

When the Galaxy Spica was available, it came with Android 1.5, “Cupcake”, then updated to 1.6, “Donut”. After some time, it received an official update to 2.1, “Eclair”. But by the time it received that update, FroYo (2.2) was starting to roll out and Gingerbread (2.3) was almost there.

It’s kinda hard for Android devices to keep up with updates. Each company has their own customization, while others prefer to use the “vanilla” aspects, but those are just a few among the crowd. At the same time, you will see new devices with new specs quite often, which means more devices that will require an update in a certain date.

Since the launch of Ice Cream Sandwich, Google stated that each new phone should have an expected (technical) lifespan of 18 months (1 year and 6 months, for the lazy people with maths), in which you, as a user, will get tech support and updates for your phone. Sounds good in theory. But how do we apply this rule in real terms?

In terms of smartphones, I’ve owned 4: HTC Touch Viva, with Windows Mobile 6.1 – the update to 6.5 was cancelled, we had to rely on custom ROMs, Samsung Galaxy Spica – stopped support after the eclair update, and there are some custom 2.3 ROMs out there, although the 2.2 ROMs are more stable and functional, Samsung Galaxy Ace – the original phone came with FroYo, but then it got an update to Gingerbread. Mine came out of the box with GB preinstalled. Depending on the phone’s model, support ended on 2.3.4 (part of LatAm and rest of the world) or 2.3.6 (Europe, part of LatAm and rest of the world). There are experimental ICS 4.0 custom ROMs out there, but still lacking details. And my current phone, the Samsung Galaxy S Advance. Comes with 2.3.6, and will receive an update to 4.1 (skipping ICS, going straight to JB), which is expected to arrive on January.

I mentioned three different Samsung devices. And each one had a different “lifespan”. But during that lifespan, more devices were released to the market, with better or lower specs than the original phone, and those phones were granted with recent updates. That’s what causes the fragmentation.

Compared to iOS, which has almost no OS fragmentation, Android has to deal with almost 10 different OS versions, from 1.5 to 4.2.

Why we say iOS has almost no fragmentation? Because despite the carrier features, the iPhone has a single model, not including the internal storage. There’s an iPhone 3GS, 4, 4S and 5. And each one uses the same OS version (being iOS 6 the latest). If we check Android, we have more than one company working on devices. To name a few, Samsung, LG, ASUS, Motorola, Huawei, ZTE, HTC, etc.

Each company has a device catalogue, ranging from the cheap, functional device, to their flagship. There are variants of the same device, changing either internal or external functions, such as CPU model, chipset, use of single/dual SIM cards, just to mention some of those features.

As the company, you have to assure the consumer that they’ll receive support and updates. But at the same time, you have to keep innovating the market to be the #1. By doing this, a company may tend to “forget” some devices and focus on their newest ones.

Of course, Google does take part into the game by taking sides with a company and release their “vanilla” device. Think of it as an iPhone running the latest version of the OS. Starting with the HTC Nexus One, then Samsung’s Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus, and finally LG and ASUS with their Nexus 4 smartphone, and Nexus 7 and 10.1 tablets.

If we compare the Nexus devices to the iOS devices, the fragmentation is reduced to almost nothing. The Nexus One is like the old iPhone, support ended at Gingerbread. The Nexus S had support until Jellybean 4.1, while the Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 4, 7 and 10.1 have support for Jellybean 4.2 and probably, 5.0.

To add more to the story, the CES 2013 is in 3 weeks, and then the MWC on February. Which means, more devices, a new android version (codename Key Lime Pie), and more fragmentation in the near future.

Should every company release a “flagship” running the vanilla version of android, and allowing the same idea of 18 months of updates and support? Or should they reduce the amount of devices and focusing 100% on those devices, leaving the innovation for MWC and CES?


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