Android L will mean more fragmentation hell for both users and developers

Android L will mean more fragmentation hell for both users and developers

Summary: Android L will face the same problems that have faced earlier incarnations of Android, and that is that the migration rate will be glacially slow, and that the majority of existing Android users will need to buy new devices in order to benefit.

TOPICS: Mobility, Android

Google unveiled its next-generation mobile platform called Android L at its I/O developer conference last month, and if things play out, as I would expect them to, we could see devices powered by this platform being available before the year is out. Along with a new look, Android L brings with it better performance, better battery life, better security, and over 5,000 new APIs for developers to leverage.

Problem is, Android L will face the same problems that have faced earlier incarnations of Android, and that is that the migration rate will be glacially slow, and that the majority of existing Android users will need to buy new devices in order to benefit.

The writing is already on the wall. Android 4.4 — codenamed KitKat — was announced by Google in September of 2013, and made its way onto new devices before the year was out, but the usage share currently only stands at around 13 percent.

Compare this to the previous release, codenamed Jelly Bean. This release, which includes versions 4.1.x, 4.2.x and 4.3, power almost 60 percent of Android devices, making it the single most popular version.

The most popular version of Android is version 4.1.x, and this powers almost a third of all devices. This was first released in July 2012 — and the last update was released in October 2012 — and it shows just how slow Android updates trickle into the ecosystem.

Compare this to the situation that Apple enjoys, where a whopping 89 percent of iOS users are running iOS 7 or higher, which was released in September 2013.

The problem with getting users up to the latest version is not because of a lack of interest. Indeed, the speed and ferocity with which iOS users upgrade to the latest version shows that users clearly are interested in new versions of operating systems.

The problem with Android is that Google is the beginning of a long system that updates have to go through.

When Google releases a new version of Android, device OEMs have to then customize the release, add their own tweaks and personalizations. Then, for smartphones and tablets that are hooked to a carrier contract, the carriers have to add their own branding. The problem is made worse by the fact that neither the OEMs nor the carriers feel there's much of a benefit in pushing free software updates to customers, and would rather focus on selling owners a new device. 

Another problem with such fragmentation and slow pace of updates is that users stuck on older versions of Android are being left vulnerable to malware and data theft as a result of bugs in the code. Take, for example, the recently discovered Pileup bugs which leave every Android-powered smartphone and tablet — more than a billion devices in all —vulnerable to malware thanks to privilege escalation issues.

The slow pace of adoption of new versions of Android also affects developers. Not only are they forced to continue to support a myriad of what are essentially obsolete versions of Android, but it also means that they can't fully take advantage of the new Android APIs in their apps.

So, no matter how great Android L turns out to be, the truth of the matter is that the majority of Android users won't see it, and by the time it gains any real traction it will be old, obsolete, and won't be seeing any further updates.

There's only two ways to get Android updates rapidly, that's either to buy Nexus-branded hardware, or by new hardware on a regular basis.

See also:

Topics: Mobility, Android

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  • Get his name in lights at WWDC

    And now Adrian will be milking the same story for as long as he can..............
    • Oh, and you forgot the 3rd way to stay up to date

      Flashing ROMs...........
      • Flashing isn't a problem for the majority of

        people who frequent ZDNet. But for most people its a hassle they don't want to deal with, or they don't have to technical skill to do it. It's not hard to upgrade and/or change your PCs is, but most people don't do that either.
        • Agreed

          Only pointing out it's a way.

          And for the people who don't frequent zdNet, and wouldn't flash they probably don't really care anyway.
          The majority don't know what version they are on anyway, and certainly don't pay attention to Google I/O or WWDC...........
          We tend to think people are tech-head like us. They're not..........
          • It really doesn't matter that much

            Like you said, if you really care about the version you are using, you can flash a rom. The reality is that apps that work on 4.4.4 also work on 2.1 if the hardware is up to it and that is what most people care about.
          • So true

            The first thing I noticed coming over to android from ios was how little os version mattered.

            Well, the techie OCs will fret but for most of us it just is not an issue. I am ok with upgrading the os only with a new phone, especially given how cheap a decent android is. My new $200, no contract, dual core, HTC is on 442 and will easily satisfy my needs for a couple of years.

            ... then I will buy something on Android N

      • Telling someone you have to flash

        you device is NOT a selling point.
      • Flashing roms? For people who cannot handle start menu change?

        Talk about flashing ROM.. When you see how people reacted to a simple start menu change in windows 8 flashing ROM would be like telling to learn a foreign language in a day.
        • That's the point

          Those people don't know what version of the OS they are running. If you get confused by a start button (and I saw some people really confused at Best Buy one day so I know what you mean), you don't care what version of the OS is on your phone. If it runs the apps they want and lets them check their email and text, they don't care.

          I think that people are used to buying new phones every couple of years. Look at iPhone. iPhone 4 barely supported iOS 7 and the phone was only three years old when it came out. Even novice users want newer hardware. I just don't think that fragmentation is that big of a deal.
      • Stats

        Android adoption stats don't support this as a way the avg. android user get's their updates. Most people don't or care to jail break their phone just to update the OS
    • Funny...

      the same people who complain about being forced away from XP also seem to complain about people still using older versions of Android and how this is bad...
  • It cannot be understated how important this is.

    For three years this very factor has limited my android experience to nexus, and I'll be honest, I was a bit miffed at how fast they drop their bexus devices - around 18 month.

    Peole always cute the cheapo phones, but this problem is still there for the £400+ devices - painfully slow and unreliable updates, made even worse by the fact a carrier network gets a say in it - by far and away the biggest flaw in the android ecosystem; carriers do not add anything to the experience, just let them put their apps in the play store like an iphone and keep them the heck out of the update process.

    Going forward, we will soon be at the situation with phones, where pc's have been for years, namely that their performance massively outstrips the requirements of the OS, applications and usage. When that is reality, being denied updates that will run perfectly well becomes more and more rediculous.
    • So tell me

      What do you have with the nexus that I don't have with my Samsung. And don't say timely updates, tell me what exactly. You see, I've done my time with my Samsung, a new phone beckons but my Samsung runs everything I need so I'm looking for hardware benefits such as waterproofing. I simply do not feel lacking in any way right now, even with a last-generation phone. No desire for nexus devices, no desire for flashing. If you can explain to me, please also explain to my mother why her S2 no longer fulfils her needs. I'd love to give her a good reason to upgrade but up to this point, her argument that it just works seems to override any talk of needing to be on 4.4.4. I see people all the time on here saying you need the latest version yet other than combatting this mythical malware epidemic, it's very rare that a tangible benefit is ever identified.
      Little Old Man
      • Primarily just speed and smoothness

        If you don't care about timely updates and prefer the Touchwiz experience, there are not many tangible benefits... but for many, that is enough. I for one don't like Touchwiz...

        If your Samsung is a year or more older though, the Nexus 5 will be noticeably faster and smoother. Truthfully, Android on the Nexus 5 is faster and smoother than on the Note III or Galaxy S5... But once again, that's because of Touchwiz being used on Samsung devices.
        • Fair enough

          That's what I was trying to get at. A little bit of smoothness matters more to others than myself. As I've said before, I don't find touchwiz terribly intrusive and for whatever reason I don't get carrier bloatware.

          I have absolutely no problem with people choosing nexus devices, I applaud conscious choice, I myself chose N7 over other tablets. I just think it's amusing when people preach that you can only have a good android experience if you go with nexus. This is almost the dictionary definition of YMMV. For the extras I got on the S3 versus available nexus hardware, losing a little smoothness was an easy trade-off. If you tell me my S3 runs "painfully slow" then you've proved you know nothing and are just trying to make point, an arrogant and foolish point.
          Little Old Man
      • You are right

        You need a Nexus if you care about these updates. You need a Nexus if you prefer a less bloated OS. The key here is personal preference.
        The vast majority of users are non techie people that could care less which version they are on. Hell, they probably don't even know which version they are on. The only reason normal people update their phones is because a pop up message comes up and the click OK. I can't bash you for enjoying your Samsung phone. Some people enjoy the android customization and other added features. I personally am a Nexus supporter because updates and less bloatware is important to me.
        • I do like to show people

          how you can the version to animate by tapping version in the settings. Most people think it's cool (alright, maybe not cool), obviously not knowing it was there. Most people also then follow it up with "what does that mean then?".

          Trying to say the only good android experience is via nexus hardware is no different than saying the only good phone is the iphone/S5/Nokia. Your needs are not my needs.
          Little Old Man
      • hmmm

        "What do you have with the nexus that I don't have with my Samsung"

        Android 5.

        Whether you find the battery life extension and added performance valuable is down to you
  • Android L will mean more fragmentation hell for both users and developers

    If that is the case then it is best to just drop android all together and avoid such headaches. Still going to have the same app freezes and random reboots so no need to bother with it.
    • Not even a problem...

      Unless you want to accept the fragmentation for MS caused by Win 7, 8, 8.1, Win RT 8, 8.1, WP 7, 7.5, 8...

      And the announced Win 9...

      Lots of fragmentation there... "If that is the case then it is best to just drop " MS "all together and avoid such headaches. Still going to have the same app freezes and random reboots so no need to bother with it."

      There, fixed that for you.