Android's fragmentation problem just got a whole lot weirder - and bigger

Android's fragmentation problem just got a whole lot weirder - and bigger

Summary: Nokia X and Amazon's Fire OS are evidence of a strange new world where Android is being used to compete with itself, and with Google.


Nokia has finally unveiled its Android-powered Nokia X range of smartphones, adding to the weird and wonderful variety of devices based on Google's open source operating system.

The Nokia X series is a set of Android-powered low-end devices from Nokia that are mostly aimed at emerging markets.

It's an intriguing strategy aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the next billion smartphone users, and getting them using Microsoft services even if they aren't buying a Windows Phone-powered device.

The idea is that the Windows Phone-style tiled look-and-feel plus Microsoft apps including Skype and OneDrive will act as a "gateway" and hopefully encourage buyers to upgrade to Windows Phone next time around with Microsoft, describing the range as a "feeder system for Lumia". Here you have the odd proposition of Android being explicitly used as a tool to help bolster its competition.

Nokia can use the Google-backed Android in the way it has because the operating system is really made up of two (relatively) discrete elements.

There's the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) which provides much of the standard smartphone functionality, and Google Mobile Services (GMS) which gives makers access to a raft of additional elements by plugging into Google's own mobile services such as the Play app store and Google Maps. The former is a free-for-all, the latter requires handset makers to pass a certification process, and it isn't open source. And it's also the bit where most of the potential for additional revenue lies.

Nokia is using AOSP but not GMS, adding its own services such as OneDrive. There's one issue with that, however – the lack of GMS means these devices won't get access to apps available on Google Play, although Nokia claimed that apps can be ported to the X range very quickly.

Nokia's X family also adds to the ongoing Android fragmentation headache for Google.

Fragmentation is already happening in two ways. Firstly there is a huge variety of Android versions in use today. Because handset companies make their own decisions about which operating system to use, very few handsets are running the latest Android version, KitKat 4.4; most, even those capable of running it, are still on older versions. This adds to the burden on developers working on new apps compared to iOS where Apple has been careful to (and able to) shepherd the majority of users onto the latest versions of its OS as fast as it can, making developers' lives easier in the process.

Secondly, there's the forking problem.

There are plenty of precedents for Nokia's decision to use part of Android and add its own goodies on top. Amazon's Fire OS which runs on its tablets including the popular Kindle Fire HDX uses AOSP and then plugs into Amazon services and Amazon's own (limited) app store. The lack of GMS doesn't seem to have held Amazon back here.

And of course in China there are vast numbers of Android phones that do not have any Google services on whatever — perhaps as few as six percent have Google services on according to one estimate.

Google built Android in the first place to provide a viable alternative to iOS and to protect search revenue as mobile web usage became the default for many consumers. And it's certainly been a success — 80 percent of smartphones shipped last year were running Android. More than a billion Android devices will ship this year.

So while Android maybe winning the smartphone market share war that doesn't necessarily mean Google is — rather, its rivals are using its own weapons against it, by using the core of Android and slapping their own services on top.

Further reading

Topics: Mobility, Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Smartphones

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  • You have a serious retcon of history...

    "Google built Android in the first place to provide a viable alternative to iOS"

    Is really:

    "Google built Android in the first place to provide a viable alternative to Windows Mobile"

    You should fix that in your article.
    • Didn't Google buy Android?

      If I recall correctly, they bought Android then began the process of embedding there services. Either, the author should update the article.
      • Acquired in 2005

        Yes, Google bought Android back in 2005 or so. But naturally it's built quite a lot on top since then and the smartphone world had changed quite a lot...
    • In which case

      That may have been where Android started but not, I think, where Google took it. And even that was so, wouldn't that make today's announcement doubly ironic?
    • fragmentation = freedom, choice

      fragmentation = freedom, choice, price
      iOS = limitation, vulnerabilities, danger, outdated

      my choice is obvious
      Jiří Pavelec
  • Android always been fragmented

    I think for me Android being open source has always been fragmented. Blame some of it on Google, some on phone makers and some on carriers. The loser has always been the end users.
    Even Android tablets are fragmented so bad that its unfair to sell a cheap off brand to consumers knowing full well its not upgradable. This to me is why Android fails where other mobile OS excel.
    No doubt it keeps users buying the latest model's of phones. But it leaves others in the dark.
    • fragmented = diversity

      If Apple made cars we would all be driving around in one-size-fits all model, probably too small for most, and over expensive. The world likes diversity and that is why Android sells so well. Fragmented is a negative word created by Apple to try and bash Android success.
      Sean Foley
      • Diversity = price

        Actually the world likes cheap and that's why Android sells so well.
        • Value?

          Actually I think you'll find the majority of the world prefers value to cost. Android would not be where it is if users didn't get value for money, they would have bought once then ditched it convinced all acquaintances to stay away. As the real world situation is completely the opposite, it shows that android gives very good value for money.

          Or it's just cheap if you want a simplistic answer.
          Little Old Man
          • Not true Little Old Man

            The same people keep shopping at Walmart or the dollar store buying clothing and everything else that wears out more quickly, has an ill fit and is not comfortable, over and over again simply because it's cheaper.
            Same goes with Android devices.
          • It's funny then

            that my last two high end Android phones have been just as expensive as iPhone. But that's choice for you.
    • The loser has always been the end users?

      And that explains why it's the leader in both phones and tablets, right? Because users like to lose?

      And so be cause of that users keep buying it and the other phones and tablets, except Apple's, remain in the dark?

      I hope this doesn't sound sensible to you when the implications you have made here are pointed out. If it still sounds good then there may be no hope for you.

      Sounds like Blackberry and MSFT need to get on the fragmentation train if they ever want to regain the share of phones they had years ago and also if they ever want to gain [b]any[/b] share in tablets.

      Or do you have another scenario in mind that will enable them to succeed?
      Still Lynn
  • And just using the base Android for a start...

    Is not fragmentation.

    It is a starting point. Not a end point.
  • Agree with many of the above sentiments

    There is no fragmentation problem.

    Android still has less (major) versions in a given time period than Apple.
    • Shagg1, that statement doesn't work....

      Just ask anyone supporting phones and devices at a site where the policy is for users who are cleared to use them on the network must bring them in and have IT set them up.
      Apple is clearly preferred since the interface and settings are the same across the models of differences are very slight.
      This is opposed to Android where each one is an entirely different interface and setup tools/config which is annoying and a large headache for IT folks.

      Apple's UI is vastly better, as is Windows, than any Android device we've ever seen.
      • ... which is annoying and a large headache for IT folks.

        Gee, too bad you can't document and automate the process and so are being forced to re-invent the wheel each time someone brings in an Android phone. Seems like there would be a relatively easy solution for that.

        Maybe someone is the accounting department can show you how to create a set of repeatable steps that will guide you through the process and eliminate your headaches. If they did then you might be able to get more time off as well as let another person do the work for you.
        Still Lynn
  • They did not build Android, they bought it.

    They bought Android from Andy Rubin who has since ran away from defending the platform's fragmentation. He spent years telling us how this "fragmentation" and forking by manufacturers and carriers brought value to the platform. I am still trying to figure how Kindle Fire brought any type of value to Android. Now Google is making deals with Samsung to cool some of its custom apps and stores etc.
    • And yet

      all of this allusive fragmentation that the icrowd keep gloating about, not really damaged android has it? Affected it? Well, what are we currently up to 70%+ worldwide market share? I'd go with no.

      Once again the non-users shout "fragmentation" and the actual users shout back "Smells like BS to us"!!
      I've tried to explain to my mum that her old GS2 has been bricked due to fragmentation but she doesn't understand and goes back to using her GS2 the same way she always has. She doesn't even know what version of android she's using - hahaha, what a joke eh!!
      Little Old Man
      • "She doesn't even know.....

        ....what version of android she's using"

        Is that supposed to be a benefit of Android? Not knowing what you're using and not expecting updates? I suspect your mum is just like many other typical Android user who were handed a phone by their family, or gotten one on the cheap. They don't care or know about the brand they're using, nor do they care or know about this thing called "Android". Maybe that's why Android manufacturers (aside from Samsung) are struggling?
    • Here's How

      "I am still trying to figure how Kindle Fire brought any type of value to Android."

      Most people who own Kindle devices are thrilled with them.

      Reason: Simplicity, and ease of use. It's Android for dummies, but happy dummies.