What Android Fragmentation Problem?

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At last week’s Google I|O conference, the last session I attended was a “fireside chat” in which Google employees discussed the Android platform with audience members. Someone asked about Android fragmentation–the fact that Android is getting upgrades so frequently that there are phones powered by multiple versions of the OS for sale all at once.

The Android team member who fielded the question spent most of his time rejecting it as a valid subject of debate. He compared the situation to Microsoft releasing multiple versions of Windows in the 1990s. He said that it isn’t fragmentation if (for instance) all Android 1.6 phones are compatible. And he ended by adding that he didn’t even like to use the word “fragmentation.” The one he preferred was “progress.”

I couldn’t quite tell if the question had struck a raw nerve, or if it simply seemed irrelevant. But the gist of the reply seems to be Google’s official stance on the matter. My friend Michael Gartenberg recently visited with Android honcho Andy Rubin, who pretty much said the same thing: Android isn’t getting fragmented.

Okay, fine. As Michael says, it’s not fragmentation in the classic sense represented by Linux, in which multiple products can share the same version number yet be incompatible with each other. But that’s not terribly comforting news to anyone who just bought a brand new Android phone which lacks the latest features and can’t run apps such as Google Earth. And while it’s perfectly normal for tech products to become obsolete within months of their release, it remains very odd indeed for products that are just entering the market to run software that’s several versions old. Which is what’s happening with Android.

It’s also a little odd to hear a Google employee defend Android by likening it to the old days when Microsoft was shipping both the Windows 9x and NT platforms, as if that were a scenario that anyone would strive for.

In a sense, the Google guy who said that what’s going on is progress, not fragmentation, is absolutely right. The only reason why there are so many phones based on so many Android variants out there is because Google is cranking out meaty Android upgrades at a pace which handset manufacturers are unprepared to deal with.

Android 1.5 shipped in April of 2009; 1.6 shipped in September; 2.0 shipped in October; 2.1 shipped in December; and 2.2 shipped last week. As Google finishes new features, it rolls them out rapidly in small batches, then gets back to work on the next batch–just as it does with a service such as Gmail. But with Gmail, Google can flip a switch and push new stuff out to every user in a few hours. It even managed to accomplish something similar with its own Nexus One phone: People who own Nexuses (Nexii?) with Android 2.1 are already getting the 2.2 update.

Old-school phone makers and carriers just can’t keep up with that, which is why the Sprint EVO 4G phones which were distributed to I|O attendees–which, like the Nexus One, were manufactured by HTC–were running Android 2.1. The EVO’s hardware is impressive, but its software will feel a bit like day-old bread until it gets the 2.2 update. (HTC says that should happen at some unspecified time in the second half of this year.)

After attending the Apple bashfest that was Google I|O’s Android keynote, I tend to suspect that Google’s relentless upgrading of Android stems only partially from the company’s genetic predisposition to iterate, iterate, iterate. It’s also about the race with the iPhone. Google wants to do everything in its power to put Android in the best possible competitive situation. So it’s not going to mimic Apple’s yearly upgrade schedule–it’ll get new features in the marketplace just as fast as it can. And it won’t stop anytime soon.

Call it fragmentation; call it progress; call it whatever you like. For now, it’s a defining characteristic of the Android platform. The only way out I see is for manufacturers and carriers to figure out how to move at a pace that’s much closer to the one Google operates on. If they do, it would be a welcome breakthrough for everybody involved…

This story, "What Android Fragmentation Problem?" was originally published by Technologizer.

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