There has been a lot of talk about fragmentation in the Android ecosystem. Anyone who says it’s not fragmented has to be kidding themselves. If an iOS user sees a cool app on another person’s iOS device, they know that it is available to them as well. Unfortunately, the same is not true for Android users. When I create an Android application, I try to run it on as many devices as possible prior to release. The tweaks to the OS made by device manufacturers can (and do) affect application performance and stability. One can easily observe this by looking at reviews in the Apps Market where users describe applications force-closing randomly on specific phones.
One of the greatest benefits of Android is that it gives customers the ability to chose a device with a UI and hardware most appealing to them. This is also its greatest curse since it causes fragmentation in the Android ecosystem, a problem much more difficult for Google than it is for Apple and BlackBerry because Google doesn’t control the hardware. The Android Update Alliance was created to guide device-makers and carriers towards updating their customers more quickly, but so far it seems dead in the water. The small tweaks that carriers make to the OS help their devices stand apart, not just from other operating systems but other Android phones as well. These differences make updating them much more difficult since the device makers need to ensure that every aspect of their customized version works on the latest update. On top of that, the hardware-makers don’t see another dime from goods and services sold within the Android ecosystem, so there is little incentive for carriers to keep older phones up to date. (Although I know I would have brand loyalty and be much more likely to continue buying a specific line of devices if the carrier guaranteed me the latest updates every time, but that’s a topic for a different post entirely.)
To make matters worse, two of the worlds most popular Android-based tablets are built on top of extremely dated versions of the OS. Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Barnes and Noble’s Nook Tablet are both running customized versions of Android 2.3. This forces developers to ask very difficult questions: “do we lower the features of our applications and potential quality to make one app that will run on all tablets, create two applications or ignore devices with older versions of the OS?” These are questions that iOS developers generally don’t need to ask themselves, thanks to Apple’s strict control over the hardware. For a visual reference of just how much variation there is in Android versions out there, check out Michael Degusta’s chart, linked at the bottom of this post.
The bottom line is that Google needs to apply more pressure to carriers and device-makers to keep their customized versions in sync with the latest version of Android. When a customer goes into the store, they should be able to look at a phones capabilities, hardware and customized UI without having to worry about whether or not their favorite apps will work on the device due to tweaked or outdated Android software. It’s an incredible benefit to iOS users that Apple keeps much of its older hardware on the latest version of the OS, and I believe that’s one of the huge appeals of Apple’s ecosystem. Google needs to give its user base that same assurance.
It’s my stance that phones should get the latest version of Android within two months of its release, and continue to receive updates for at least 2 years (This works in the USA where customers are typically offered a discounted phone upgrades at the end of a 2 year contract. I’m not sure if this would be a good solution for customers outside the USA). Tablets should get updates for at least 4 years from their release. I realize that is forever in technology, but tablets are more expensive and beginning to replace laptops. If I were a student who opted for a tablet over a laptop, I’d like to believe it will function fully for me through my college career.
My final thought – When a carrier no longer wants to provide updates to its customized versions, then they should open up their boot-loaders to allow the developer community to keep a device alive and up-to-date. This will help give Android phones that are no longer in service contracts a second life as MP3 players, development devices and iPod touch equivalents.
– Android Orphans: Visualizing a Sad History of Support | October 26, 2011