Still More on Android Fragmentation

By  |  Monday, June 7, 2010 at 1:35 am

In an item on his personal blog, Dan Morrill, the Google program manager who I thought was insufficiently concerned about Android fragmentation, has followed up on his original post. He mentions my take, and while he says he found it somewhat histrionic, that’s okay–he also says he liked it.

I still think Morrill in particular and Google in general are being too breezy in their dismissal of the complications for consumers stemming from the fact that it’s upgrading Android faster than handset manufacturers can keep up. Morill says that phone buyers are smart enough to understand the concept of “last year’s model.” But we’re not talking about phones from a year ago which have since been replaced by this year’s models–fragmentation, or whatever you want to call it, affects multiple phones released in 2010 which haven’t been replaced by anything.

Motorola’s i1, for instance, runs Android 1.5, which is four revisions back from the current one, 2.2–and it isn’t even for sale yet. It’s a new kind of “last year’s model”–one that arrives after this year’s models. I can’t think of any comparable situation in the whole history of personal technology.

Morrill contends that “the vast majority of regular-Joe Android users” don’t care about this stuff at all. I’m sure he’s right that there are teeming masses of folks who either don’t mind or aren’t aware that the new phones they buy don’t have Android’s newest features and can’t run some apps. For sophisticated types, though, it’s a bummer that must be weighed against the multiple arguments in favor of the Android platform.

(And in case it isn’t clear, I don’t keep returning to this topic because I want to find reasons to bash Android–I come back to it because I like Android and hope that it thrives.)

While Morrill does keep finding reasons to conclude that fragmentation isn’t worth worrying about, he does end by acknowledging that the multiple-version situation is “painful” for some Android users. It’s the closest I’ve seen Google come to admitting that it’s simply going about its business in a way with a different set of trade-offs than any operating-system company before it, and that it’s not without consequences. That’s nice to hear, since my concern all along hasn’t been that fragmentation is a disaster so much as that it was an issue that Google seemed to be unwilling to see.

Morrill also appears to be very optimistic that handset manufacturers will soon get better at keeping up with OS upgrades. Given that he knows far more than I do about what’s going on behind the scenes at Google’s partners, I’ll take that as good news…


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10 Comments For This Post

  1. Tom Ross Says:

    Google probably believes that they can just grow out of the problem, ie why bother about 10 million early adopters (and hapless mainstream customers) that have been shafted this and last year if you’re soon going to sell 10, 20, 30… million new devices every quarter? Their complaints will just be drowned out.

    “Morrill contends that “the vast majority of regular-Joe Android users” don’t care about this stuff at all.”

    Regular Joe is very likely to bump into that ceiling at least once over the typical 2 year lifespan of his device, especially if his phone falls even further behind from the most recent Android release. If you buy an Android 1.5 today, it will probably not be supported by more than half of new app releases next year.

    “Morrill also appears to be very optimistic that handset manufacturers will soon get better at keeping up with OS upgrades.”

    If that happens it will be another cost factor for the manufacturers and carriers. This diminishes the cost advantage of Android. AND it hasn’t happened yet so customers are still getting burned as we’re speaking.

  2. Ryan Says:

    This is one thing that’s keeping me from switching over to Android from my current iPhone 3G (well, that and the lure of a possible new sexy iPhone this year). I want to be sure that whatever Android phone I get has the latest and greatest version of Android (or is likely to get in the near future). Of course, being up here in Canada and stuck on the Rogers network for the time being, my Android options are SEVERELY limited any way.

  3. Patrick Jones Says:

    So what’s the right choice, not advancing the platform so that people will stop complaining about “fragmentation”? I think that Morrill is correct that most people don’t care, and the people who do are usually sophisticated enough to choose well. My Hero is running 2.1, and that should hold me pretty well until I am eligible for an upgrade in 6 months. My wife, who also has a hero, does not care in the least what version she has.

    re: the i9 — note that this is being sold to the pre-paid market. So maybe it’s not a great phone in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a definite upgrade from what’s generally available in that market.

    I think that Harry’s attitude focuses too much on the very top end of the market. Some people can drive BMW’s; but a lot of people are happy to get a really reliable Hyundai.

  4. Ryan Patterson Says:

    I agree fragmentation is a problem for android but not the way you think. Fragmentation is not google’s problem; it is the device manufacturers’ problem.

    It is the same old ‘open source’ = ‘no cost’ fallacy. A company wants to save money so they switch to open source software then they slash the software support budget to 0.1 of what it was before. The result is not what they expected (bad).

    With android the device manufacturers think they can get away with not supporting the OS because it is open source. This results in new devices being released with outdated versions of android. And recently released devices not getting timely updates.

    In reality if the device manufacturers took the money “saved” by using an open source OS and used it to support that OS on their products there would not be an issue (they would be ready with up to date updates etc). But of coarse to an executive looking at a spreadsheet, spending money to support somebody else’s open source software doesn’t make sense. They would rather take the “free” OS and slap a gimmick branded GUI on top of it and never touch it again.

  5. stan Says:

    the real problem is that mobile device manufacturers have never been timely with software updates EVER. Now that a few big name manufacturers are using a desirable OS that updates frequently people have become aware of the poor software practices that these companies have always employed.

  6. memo Says:

    I guess android should give some kick ass feature to compete with iphone.

  7. @JoeTierney Says:

    Very nice post – thank you!

    I am going to have to go with Google on this one. A year or two back many of these same Android users were running around with WinMo or Blackberries devices and Apple was the only real game in town. There are obviously worse things in life than running a phone with an older Android version. I also agree that most consumers do not have a clue with version of Android they’re running. It sounds to me like most folks just refer to them as “Android phones”.

    If you want to be running the latest Android version you should get yourself a NexusOne. I’ve been running 2.2 since almost right after it was released. Android innovation shouldn’t wait around, it can’t wait around, it needs to keep pushing forward. The devices will catch up. Consumers are speaking with their wallets and they love Android.

  8. Mark G Says:

    “Fragmentation is not google’s problem; it is the device manufacturers’ problem.” But if Google really cares about the users then they should make it their problem.

  9. joethecoder Says:

    This is most definitely a google problem. It makes people hesitate before buying an android phone. If they want to beat Apple, they need to make the phone HW a commodity (one android phone is as good as another). The problem comes about because G seems to favor one manufacturer at a time (HTC seems the current fav, mot was last week’s) for a given release. They don’t make it easy for all their “partners” to track the next release. So, we consumers, wind up in the situation where a given release is really tuned to a specific piece of phone HW. It’s a sign of the immaturity of the Android development team. They really need to learn how to develop to a platform, not a point piece of HW.

  10. suresh Says:

    well thats precisely the point.

    Google doesn’t care about the consumer — they are collateral damage.

    All Google cares about is creating chaos and disruption — they’re ‘idealistic’ belief is that eventually market will work itself out.

    Clearly none of the carriers can keep up with the speed of innovation by Google — the result is fragmentaion and pain in the short/medium term.

    Until such time that Android is baked — but hardware needs to keep on improving. This will put a lot of stress in the handset groups.

    The outcome is that one or two will really emerge as market leaders.

    Again — Google wants that story to be played out.

    In a world of chaos, confusion, malware, spyware, disruption — The user is not king anymore.

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