Jul 11 AT 10:39 AM Anthony Domanico 21 Comments

Anthony Domanico’s Complaint Department: App Fragmentation

Hello newsfans! We at Android and Me are trying to shake things up a little bit and thought it would be cool to bring you guys some regular posts that are a bit off the beaten path. In addition to the regular coverage we know you all love, we’ll be writing a few standing weekly columns on various topics related to your favorite mobile operating system. Now, I can’t let you in on what we’re planning on doing just yet (mostly because the column you’re about to read is the only one we’ve settled on at this point). But be sure to stay tuned to Android and Me for further weekly column announcements.

The Android and Me staff would like to introduce to you our newest weekly column, “Anthony Domanico’s Complaint Department.” Let’s face it:  No matter how much we love Android, there are some things out there that really drive us nuts. After all, it can’t be all good, right? Each week I’ll write about something that really bothers me, or we’ll scour Twitter and Facebook comments for a topic. Our staff will investigate things that are bugging the Android community and provide a more in-depth post explaining the issue and what we’d like done about it (if we can think of any good solutions, that is).

Without further ado, the first (of many) in the Anthony Domanico’s Complaint Department series:

You know what really grinds my gears this week? Fragmentation. And no, I’m not talking about operating system fragmentation, I’m talking about the potentially worse kind. There has been an increasingly troubling trend of late, catching the eye of many in the Android community. Increasingly awesome and must-have applications are becoming handset specific, leaving users who don’t happen to own the exact right piece of hardware out in the cold. At least OS-specific fragmentation made a bit of sense; some software just depended on advancements that were only allowed by the most recent Android operating system. Froyo (Android 2.2) offered significant performance improvements and features that weren’t found in Eclair (2.1), which in turn had significant performance improvements and features that weren’t found in Donut (1.6), and so on. What I really don’t understand is that I can have two nearly identical phones sitting next to each other, running the same version of Android, and one of them can’t run an application because of device or chipset fragmentation.

Netflix/Hulu

Before we walk down the Netflix/Hulu path, I must fully disclose that the main reason Netflix/Hulu is available only on certain devices is due to DRM issues that Netflix must account for before they allow a device access to their instant streaming capability. This is a known (and indeed necessary) evil, and one that shouldn’t really affect our thinking about this type of fragmentation.

That being said, try telling that to people who own devices that don’t happen to currently be on the supported devices list. Even worse, one thing we can be sure of is not all devices will ever end up supporting Netflix and/or Hulu, even some of the higher end devices just hitting/about to hit store shelves. Will the upcoming Droid Bionic ever see support for these services? How about the Galaxy S2? Or, gasp, the Nexus 3/Prime/Unicorn phone that is supposed to be the flagship device for the impending fall of the OS-fragmentation empire?

The announcement of Netflix HD for Texas Instruments OMAP4 processors adds another level of complexity to the puzzle, as who knows whether or not viewing Netflix in High Definition will come to non-TI chipsets, or how long it will take.

The very fact that the fate of these (arguably) essential services is unknown, that the inclusion of these types of applications can make or break the purchasing decision for a vast number of consumers, makes a strong case for the potential issues with this new type of fragmentation.

Chipset-specific applications

Chipset-specific applications is the area that really tends to leave a bad taste in the Android user’s mouth. Netflix once fell into this category when it announced it would be available exclusively on devices featuring Qualcomm’s snapdragon processor. The inclusion on the Samsung Nexus S (Hummingbird), as well as the announcement that NVIDIA is working with Netflix to bring this service to Tegra devices, quickly remedied this problem.

Where individuals seem to be the most frustrated with chipset-specific application fragmentation has been with games that have worn the “Tegra-only” tag. There have been many games released recently that play extremely well on the Motorola Xoom, G2x or other Tegra-toting devices, but owners of HTC’s Sensation/EVO 3D or the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S2 series won’t be able to enjoy them, even though their devices can certainly handle the extra graphical strain these games require. In fact, some of them have been hacked to run on the now year-old HTC Nexus One.

We reached out to NVIDIA for comment as to whether or not they are forcing developers to enter into exclusive relationships, and received this official comment.

It's completely up to the developer what platforms they release games on. They tend to focus on Tegra due to the graphics capability and familiar graphics architecture, which makes it easier to bring console-quality games to mobile. Developers also tend to focus on a single platform to ease debug and support requirements.Official StatementNVIDIA

Though it appears NVIDIA is not currently targeting exclusive deals with developers, is this tactic one that NVIDIA or other chipset makers will revert to as a means of convincing handset manufacturers to use their products in future devices?

If things continue in this direction, I believe it paints a very dark future for Android. Though we can all probably think of a million negative things to say about iOS, the fact is releasing only one iPhone every year prevents this problem from occurring. And since Microsoft and RIM have a pretty solid death grip over Windows Phone 7 and Blackberry OS, this problem seems to be Android-specific. At least for the foreseeable future.

Solutions?

Assuming this is even remotely as large a problem as I have made it out to be, what can be done about device/chipset fragmentation? Should we reach out to the likes of NVIDIA and Qualcomm and TI to let them know that we don’t approve of the direction they’re headed in this respect? Should Google step in and put the kibosh on it?

Unfortunately, unless Google has something up their sleeves when it comes to Ice Cream Sandwich, I don’t see a solution to this issue presenting itself anytime soon.

Feedback

With these weekly columns, we want to be more interactive with our readers. As such, we always want to hear from you and will do what we can to carry on the conversation in the comments.  This is also an opportunity for you to tell us what bugs you about Android. We may explore your gripes for future stories. To get this process started, I’ll pose a couple questions for you to wrestle with.

  • Have you experienced chipset fragmentation? How/in what ways?
  • Is chipset-fragmentation as big of an issue as I’m making it out to be?
  • What potential solutions do you see for chipset fragmentation?
  • Does having an application such as Netflix, Hulu or Galaxy on Fire 2 influence which Android smartphone or tablet you’re going to purchase next?
  • What grinds your gears about Android?

Sound off on these (and more) questions in the comments.  See you next week.

Anthony loves all things technology, from hardware to apps and games. You can connect with him via Google+ or Twitter by clicking one of the fancy doo-dads above.

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