Apr 03 AT 3:52 PM Dustin Earley 53 Comments

Is fragmentation really that big of a deal?

android-fragmentation

When I think of the nastiest word I can associate with Android, I think of “fragmentation.” Fragmentation is like a big, dark cloud hanging over Android’s head. Those controlling the weather don’t want to admit they’re the ones who accidentally made it, and those gazing on from the distance have no problem telling you how nasty it looks. But how does it really feel under the dark cloud of fragmentation? Is it really as bad as it seems?

First, let’s address what fragmentation really is, and how it happens. As Google works to release new versions of Android, it’s up to the manufacturers of older phones to update those phones to the latest version of Android. Before a phone can be updated to the newest version of Android, like 4.0 for example, the update has to be reworked and customized for every individual phone a manufacturer plans on updating. After manufacturers rework the newest version of Android for every individual phone, carriers then have to add custom apps, preform tests and work to get rid of all the bugs to create a decent user experience.

When Motorola only had the Droid and HTC only had the G1, myTouch and Hero, the process seemed fine enough. I don’t think Google anticipated Android taking off the way it did. Now, there are more manufacturers with more handsets than I care to name, with less employees than they need to get everything done. Manufacturers release so many phones at a consistent enough rate that they can’t possibly always upgrade every single one. Especially because as soon as a phone hits retail, they’re already working on the sequel to the phone.

So new versions of Android come out, and manufacturers can’t or won’t update their older phones. And most consumers keep a phone for two years. Which means that in some cases, there are consumers out there who are actually still running versions of Android that are years upon years old.

Take the latest Android version tracker updated by Google. A total of 2.9% of Android users are running a device with the newest version of Android, 4.0. Android 4.0 has been around for about five months now. Meanwhile, 6% of Android users are still stuck on Android 2.1, which first came out in 2009.

Comparing Android 4.0 users to Android 2.1 users is a quick way to make the situation seem really, really bad. In all reality, 87% of Android users are using a device running 2.2 or 2.3. Which is pretty good.

Whatever older version of Android you’re running, the outcome is still the same. I could go into the details of every single aspect of Android updates and what technical aspects those updates bring, but what I really want to take a look at is whether or not those things heavily impact the user experience of your average non-Android enthusiast. More often than not, the answer is no.

The fact of the matter is, whether your phone is on 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, or 4.0, you can still make the same calls, send the same texts and run the same apps. Of course, there are exceptions to apps, but they go both ways. Some of the newest apps won’t work on older Android devices, and some older apps won’t work on newer devices. For the most part though, every single app in the Google Play store will work on at least 90% of the Android devices still being used today.

That is the main reason why Google doesn’t think fragmentation is a big deal. And it’s the main reason why your average consumer has no idea what fragmentation even is. For the average user, it’s simply not that big of a deal. They don’t even know they don’t have the latest version of Android. So long as their phone works and can use all the latest apps, they will be fine.

Of course, if you were to ask anyone using a device running an older version of Android if they’d like their phone to be faster or something similar, they’d say yes. But the same goes for anyone using a device running a newer version of Android as well. There’s a lot of factors involved when it comes to a phone’s performance and usually the version of Android you’re running is the least of your worries.

When it comes to how the user interface looks, how many people out there really buy a device thinking, “hopefully, the operating system on this phone looks different some day.”? I’ve personally seen people get upset over their phone being updated and something looking different. Again, so long as everything functions as it should, most people could care less.

Now before anyone loses it in the comments, it’s not like I support fragmentation. I throughly believe that Google and all of the manufacturers using Android need to get together and figure something out. Google needs to share the development process with manufacturers so they can get a head start on updates, and manufacturers need to release fewer devices. And service updates are totally different from major OS updates. I’ll save that for another post.

Still, no matter how you look at it, running an older version of Android is not as big of a deal as you may have been led to believe.

I know fragmentation is real hot topic issue among Android enthusiasts, so I’d love to know what you think. Is it going to be the death of Android? Am I out of touch here, does the average consumer really care about being stuck on Android 2.3, or do they have no idea? Let it all out in the comments.

Dustin Earley: Tech enthusiast; avid gamer; all around jolly guy.

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