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Does Android Fragmentation Matter?

written by: •edited by: Simon Hill•updated: 6/28/2011

As more and more handsets with varying versions of Android are released, some mobile phone commentators are wondering if there is a threat of fragmentation to the Android mobile OS...

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    Android Fragmentation Explained

    Is Android Fragmentation a threat? What do you think of your new Android phone? I bet you love the way you can browse the Market for any apps and download the best ones available. Except, they might not be the best, not if you’re running Android version 1.6; the chances are that a better app could be downloaded if you were using the Froyo 2.2 version of Android.

    It is a common occurrence, particularly given the increasing popularity of Android phones thanks to manufacturers like HTC, Samsung, Sony Ericsson and LG.

    This is explained by the term “Android fragmentation”.

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    What is Android Fragmentation?

    Same operating system, different versions, different set of available apps. This is what is considered by many to be “Android fragmentation”, whereby a single platform is fragmented by a lack of compatibility between different handsets with different features and slightly different versions of the operating system.

    Interestingly, the folk behind Android aren’t that concerned, if Google Android project leader Andy Rubin is to be believed. At the 2010 Google I/O (their annual developer conference) he said:

    "Some of the press has called it fragmentation, but that's probably the wrong word for it.

    "The better word for it is 'legacy.' With these phones and devices, the iteration cycle is incredibly fast. It used to be that every 18 months, a new device would reach the market. But we're seeing it happen every three or four months. The software obviously has to keep up and I don't think anyone is harmed by it.”

    There is a sort of circular model in place here, whereby improvements in mobile handset hardware drive improvements in the Android operating system, which then in turn drive improvements in the hardware and so on. Whether you’re affected by this “legacy” issue or not, it is encouraging to know that the Android platform is so healthy that it can adapt to the risk of fragmentation and even incorporate it into the product cycle.

    Android isn’t the first mobile operating system to have been exposed to the threat of fragmentation, however.

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    Android Fragmentation and Windows Mobile

    The Nexus 1 is one of the newwer models highlighting the possibility of Android fragmentation One of the key problems attributed to the eventual failure of Windows Mobile (which lead to the development of Windows Phone 7) was the fragmentation of its user base. There are differences with Android – Windows Mobile was used predominantly by business and enterprise customers – but with certain handsets having touchscreen capabilities and others missing this feature, some networks shipping Windows Mobile 5 while Windows Mobile 6.5 was available not to mention the various attempts to upgrade the operating system so that only certain apps could be used, you can see that there are particular similarities with what we’re seeing now on Android.

    The main difference, however, is that Android is becoming an increasingly popular platform, likely to be as widely used as Apple iOS by mid-2011.

    If there truly is such a thing as Android fragmentation, it would seem to be something that affects a very small segment of users.