Is fragmentation really a problem for Android? Is Google closing the door?

The headlines are all over today that Google is cracking down on fragmentation with Android. You will see quotes like, “The party is over.” According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Google is forcing Android licensees to abide by “no-fragmentation clauses” that give Google the final say on how manufacturers tweak the Android code. Examples of this would be skins like HTC’s Sense, Motorola’s Blur, and Samsung’s Touchwiz. Andy Rubin said that these clauses were always a part of the Android license, but people are finding that maybe Google is enforcing it a little more.

All of this talk started when Google announced that they will not release the source code for Honeycomb (Android 3.0) which was built for tablets. Andy Rubin, head of Google’s Android group, clearly stated that they do not want hardware vendors to adapt it to run on other form factors where it might not function properly. He admitted that Google cut corners in order to get Honeycomb to market as fast as possible. The XOOM was released at the end of February and it still has a useless SD card slot. I doubt this is an issue with the hardware, but more likely the Honeycomb software. Most of the other Honeycomb tablets that are coming to market will be in June. This proves that there are obvious issues with Honeycomb and until things are rectified don’t expect to see the source code. Does this mean Google is closing the door because they are concerned with the reliability of software?

One week later and the reports are that Google will have to approve every modification. It appears Facebook might be stirring up the pot because they are unhappy that Google is going to review their form of tweaks for their smartphone. It is interesting that Facebook is not talking much. Android has always been open and has allowed manufacturers to make their own tweaks to it, but who knows if Facebook was making too many major changes. Whether you like Sense or Blur, the principles of the Android UI are roughly the same. What if Facebook went a little too far in that you could not even tell if it were the Android operating system? Should Google be considered “closed” if they stop such a thing?

The theory is that Google is doing all of this to stop fragmentation. This “F” word has been brought up from day 1 as a huge problem for Android, but for some reason, 60 million phones were sold in 2010. The critics say fragmentation is an issue because there are different versions of Android running on different phones which is caused by different skins. The only people who care about fragmentation are the hardcore fans and they represent a small percentage of the market. Mainstream consumers could care less if they are on Android 2.1 or 2.2, let alone running Sense or Blur. These are the same consumers who are willing to sign a contract for 2 years so why should they care? The majority of Samsung owners are happy with their version of Android and could care less what else is out there. On the other hand, hardcores, like myself, do care. Fortunately for hardcores it works out because they have more knowledge of what’s out there to decide what phone or tablet to purchase. Because I am a hardcore, I did not get caught buying a Samsung phone because I do care about what version of Android my phone has, but again, I am in the minority. The bottom line is that mainstream consumers just don’t have the time to care about Sense, Blur, or whatever version of Android they are running.

Lets take it to TV’s where there are tons of fragmentation. There are plasmas, LCD’s, and LED’s. The mainstreamer looks for a decent deal and when they get home all they see is a nice HD picture. It does not matter to them that their neighbor might have a little better picture. They just see their TV and it looks wonderful. Was fragmentation a problem with Windows? Over the years when newer versions of Windows came out, most people stuck with the older version until they bought a new computer. Of course consumers had the choice to buy the upgrade, but half the time their hardware didn’t meet the specs for it to run right. There are plenty of people out there still using XP and are fine with it.

One of the biggest critics of Android’s fragmentation is Steve Jobs, but Apple’s way of doing business actually proves that fragmentation is not an issue. We all know Apple is a closed world. With it you get 1 phone (or tablet) each year and 1 app store. If you are into Apple, you have the choice of whatever Steve Jobs and Apple gives you. The typical Apple user could care less about all of the other options and choices out there. They just think they have the best (or magical) phone known to man and that is it. Apple was still able to sell millions of phones even though you could not even change the background wallpaper on it. I would argue that most IPhone users never heard of Android. You have to give credit to Apple for seeing this and coming out with a good product with a nice looking UI. They went right after the mainstream market and it is a great business model, but it doesn’t mean that fragmentation equals failure.

The question is will Google now stop all these skins like Sense and Blur and close the door? The answer is most likely not. Trust me when I tell you that Google is open and will continue to be open. The problem with the word “open” is people take it too literally. Google cannot be that kind of “open.” No matter what, there is always a higher God to answer to. If there weren’t, things would be a complete mess. You can be open and still have standards. An example of closed is Apple where you have 1 choice and 1 place to buy apps. With Google’s Android you have different choices and that to me is open.

About the Author: Robert Nazarian

Robert lives in upstate New York where he was born and raised. Technology was always his passion. His first computer was a Radio Shack TRS80 Color that used a cassette tape to save programs, and his first laptop was a Toshiba T1200FB that sported a CGA greyscale screen and two 720kb floppy drives (no hardrive). From the early 90’s through late 2011, he only owned Motorola phones starting with the MircroTAC all the way through to the Droid X. He broke that streak when he bought the Galaxy Nexus. Now he's sporting a Galaxy Note 4, and absolutely loves it. He has a wonderful wife and a 6 year old son. In his free time he enjoys sports, movies, TV, working out, and trying to keep up with the rapid fast world of technology.

  • Lame

    LOL :D Fragmentation is HUGE PROBLEM in mobile world. Windows Mobile had that, and what happened? It died. Android would die if Google wouldnt do anything. Noone will buy a phone, if they won’t get updates. And Android SUCKS

  • Emmanuel

    Android is amazing. Thank god google is “open” cuz i cant imagine myself without Sense.

  • Emil

    Great article, well written and explains the issues with Android fragmentation.
    Just one remark “I could careless” is spelled “I could care less”, one wouldn’t say “I could careful”. The opposite of “I could care less” is ” I could care more” which makes sense.

  • David S.

    So Android is open if you redefine open to the point that Android becomes open? Because you say it is, we should trust you? You can’t be serious,

    Open source software has very clear definitions and Android no longer meets those criteria. That is a fact and no amount of spin and requests to “trust me” can change that. Having multiple hardware vendors making devices is *not* the same thing as being open source, unless you consider Windows to be open source. And that would be crazy.

    Looking back on Google’s statements over the years I’m struck by how rarely they actually describe Android as “open source” and how frequently they just referred to it as “open”, allowing everyone to assume they meant the former. Clearly they didn’t. They meant Android was open the way Windows is open – open to being run on different manufacturer’s hardware.

    Of course being or not being open source has nothing to do with whether a piece of software is any good or not, and that’s what we Android users should be most concerned with. It’s time we gave up the fantasy that Android is better than the competition because it’s open source and judged it on whether it’s a better, more reliable, easier to use system than others on the market. The answer here is that it isn’t, yet, but it can be if Google and Android developers make it so.

  • JL Rivers

    I think fragmentation is an issue here, but not of Android per se; the real problem is the fragmentation of the apps platforms that will proliferate if this clause is not implemented soon. Yes, this is ad admittance that Google has lost some of the control it thought it was going to enjoy (naively i should add). We now have a very competitive Android Market via Amazon; how long before Sprint’s store starts getting more visibility? Or any other carrier’s store? THAT’s in mu opinion the control Google does not want to lose any further.

  • JL Rivers

    This is a very good article -I love the comparison made with TVs. Spot on!

  • Balazs Balazs

    I think you’ve missed the point with fragmentation.

    Fragmentation is a problem for the app developers.
    1. OS fragmentation. They have to choose if they use the new features, which enables great apps or support the older ones and miss out the cool, new features. Alternatively they can develop an app, which checks the version of the OS but usually they just leave the older versions unsupported.
    2. Customization fragmentation. Developers have to test their applications on all phones available because different vendor customizations behave differently. Usually they don’t have the resources to do so, so on many devices the apps have bugs.

    That’s the main problem with you TV analogy. The users don’t care if the screen has a little better picture. But they DO care if they can’t see a picture at all. What if their favourite TV shows or movies were only available on LCD’s? As long as the content is not influenced fragmentation is not a big deal – but in the case of Android that’s not the case. (By the way, with different IOS versions and devices Apple has this problem, too, only on a smaller scale).

  • Oscar

    I’m sorry, but comparing phones to TVs just isn’t right. Sure, there may be many different technologies that go into televisions, but ultimately they all have the same channels, can play the same DVDs, and can have the same consoles hooked into them. The definition and clarity may vary, but that’s it. The whole point of Android fragmentation is that these phones don’t all support the same apps because of differences in the software. As much as I love my Samsung Vibrant, I wish I could use apps like Wiimote Controller (worked fine on my G1), or some of the new Tegra-2-only games.

    So, yes, there is fragmentation. I just think you need a different analogy.

  • Robert Nazarian

    Hey guys, you bring some good points about the TV comparison and I will admit I did not touch on the issue with apps not working as well across all devices, but I still feel that the mainstream does not notice the fragmentation of apps as much as hardcores do. I think most (yes there might be exceptions) high profile apps will work across the different platforms, and for some of the less popular ones there might be issues. My point is that mainstream consumers will just not care and move on because that particular app may not be that important to them.

    Google is taking steps to help with whatever fragmentation they have so that it doesn’t get completely insane and people are looking at it as if they are becoming closed. I think they are making good moves to better the overall experience.

    Anybody upset because the source code for Honeycomb is not released is insane because Google should not have to release source does that is not right. They admitted that Honeycomb is not right so why should they release it? If they are working on Android 3.5 right now and they happened to be 25% done with it are they supposed to release that as well? The bottom line is that Honeycomb is not a finished product. Yes I know it is crazy that it is was released early on the XOOM, but clearly there are bugs that need to be worked out.

  • Aris Baluyut

    i think android was just a marketing strategy of google so that manufacturers will embrace them. chrome os will easily fill the void a fragmented android left behind :)