Sunday, November 6, 2011

Android fragmentation - the elephant in the room

If there's one issue that haunts the Android "industry" it's the widely discussed problem of fragmentation. Dozens of companies (Motorola, HTC, etc.) make hundreds of Android models to be sold by numerous carriers, in retail stores and online. There are differences in the phones - different size screens, virtual or physical keyboards, price, etc. Having choices is certainly appealing - with the iPhone it's black or white, literally. However Android choices can be very confusing for someone trying to find the "right" phone - like the potato chip aisle at the quickstop - way too many choices.

Imagine if your one year old PC did not qualify
for the latest version of Windows.

This seems in some ways like the battle between Apple and Microsoft for PC dominance but there is a significant difference. If fragmentation in the PC world had been harmful, Apple would have been the logical beneficiary because there were hundreds of PC manufacturers over the years. But PCs were not all that different - they used the same processors, the same disk drives, the same keyboards, etc. so differences were either minor cosmetic factors or price. Most importantly they all ran the same operating system and most could be reliably upgraded for at least five years. 

This meant buying one PC brand or another resulted in a generally similar outcome. Unfortunately this is where the  comparison breaks down. Android based phones have a dismal record concerning upgradability.

A recent survey sheds light on the situation in very graphic form. A long list of Android phones has a horizontal bar beside each product name. The beginning of the bar is color coded to indicate which version of Android came with the device - green meaning latest version, yellow, one version back and red, two versions back. Progressing to the right, the bar color indicates the availability of upgrades on each model. Some models begin with a green portion indicating the latest Android version is factory installed but in other cases, the starting point is yellow - meaning the phone ships with an old version of Android. That's like buying a PC today with Windows Vista installed. Without even looking at the individual phones the overall picture is shocking - generally green to the left but a sea of yellow and red to the right - meaning one or two year old phones cannot be upgraded. Imagine if your one year old PC did not qualify for the latest version of Windows.

In the case of the Android phones, the hardware may be capable of handling the upgrade but the handset makers and carriers  - not Google - control which phones will be upgraded and when. When you purchase any smartphone, there is no promise of whether upgrades will be provided or what they will include or cost. Apple has taken the highroad and provides free upgrades to all devices immediately. The Android situation is just the opposite. Some may not be upgraded at all and for those that are upgradable, when it will happen varies widely. A ten second look at the survey is all it takes to get the message.

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