Is Android fragmentation preventing world domination?

Is Android fragmentation preventing world domination?

Summary: Android's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Whatcha gonna do, Google?


I had a conversation last week with a couple of developers who work on both Google Apps Marketplace software and Apple iOS applications (they eschew Android and its market for reasons we'll see later). There's a fair amount of cross-pollination among programmers these days as many Apps and sophisticated Web platforms leverage similar coding skills. Similar coding skills, however, and the ability to really crank out high-quality software across platforms are two different things. Complicating matters further is that Android is barely a single platform anymore. One has to wonder how much the fragmentation of the OS and related hardware is interfering with developer innovation and what should be the utter dominance of Android.

Jason Hiner posted a great piece this morning on (among other things) the failure of the Open Handset Alliance to deliver the open, transparent, easily-developed platform it promised. In fact, it's become clear that Android's greatest strength, namely its ability to be customized and repurposed to meet a variety of carrier, customer, and hardware needs is also its greatest weakness. As Jason wrote,

...Google is proving to be a poor shepherd for the wolves-in-sheep’s-clothing that make up the telecoms and the handset makers in the Alliance.

As a result, we now have a situation where the U.S. telecoms are reconsolidating their power and putting customers at a disadvantage. And, their empowering factor is Android. The carriers and handset makers can do anything they want with it. Unfortunately, that now includes loading lots of their own crapware onto these Android devices, using marketing schemes that confuse buyers...and nickle-and-diming customers with added fees to run certain apps such as tethering, GPS navigation, and mobile video.

iOS, on the other hand, runs on a very tightly controlled set of hardware with no real control or customization exerted by AT&T. As a result, developers continue to be drawn to this platform where their Apps work as expected and provide an optimized, high-quality user experience no matter what. It's impossible for Android developers to optimize based on hardware (e.g., screen size, processor speed, memory, etc.) or software (versions of Android ranging from 1.5 through 2.2 are floating about in the wild and have successively brought major improvements in functionality that developers can exploit). While Apps that cannot run on a given version of Android shouldn't surface in the Android Market, developers must choose between creating the most innovative apps on cutting edge platforms and hitting the lowest common denominator to reach the largest audience. Such is not the case on iOS, to the detriment of freedom and all those wonderful ideals but to the absolute benefit of developers (and, in many ways, customers).

Long term, it's becoming clear that truly innovative apps and the highest quality web experience will be the major differentiators for mobile operating systems and the phones that run them. Brilliant apps need an invested developer community and faith in the platform. No single killer platform has emerged around which developers can rally, Google hasn't developed robust mechanisms for dealing with software fragmentation, and carriers and device makers have proven unwilling to standardize, making Android less compelling (despite its exploding market share) than iOS for the most powerful apps.

By all rights, Android should be crushing iOS under the sheer volume of carriers and device makers that are using the OS. It's holding its own, but the fragmentation that Tim Bray has largely dismissed seems to be standing directly in the path of wild innovation and Google's world domination of mobile platforms. That is what you want, right Google? Then it's time to use some of your corporate muscle and bring your partners to a point where developers are as universally enthusiastic about Android as they are about iOS.

Topics: Hardware, Apps, CXO, Emerging Tech, Mobility, Smartphones

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Goog treat developers as lab rats

    You guys should have known better by now after that Wave debacle. They don't really have much a vision what to do outside of search tho they pretended to. All they do is to throw sth onto the wall to generate some hype in the delusional FOSS community. If it sticks (Android is the only one that does), then good. If not, all you guys and the effort invested in are expendable.
  • Perhaps you missed the true point of android

    the whole point of android is too increase googles search ad revenue for minimal investment. and no even if this problem didnt exist it wouldn't change things world domination wise...
    Johnny Vegas
    • RE: Is Android fragmentation preventing world domination?

      @Johnny Vegas Yep, Google already won world domination a long time ago. They know more about you than anyone else in the world, even your own spouse in most cases. "Oh, but it's not personally identifiable". Ever use Gmail? Google Apps? Buy something online through Google Checkout? Guess what, you just made it personally identifiable.
  • Why the myth that there is no iOS fragmentation?

    iOS truths:<br>8 different devices with significantly different hardware capabilities<br><br>3 different resolutions<br><br>4 versions of iOS, each with significantly different capabilities<br><br>Now you may be tempted to start talking about how many more differences exist in Android and you may be right but the truth is that if you (as a developer) have to deal with more than 1 or 2 fixed configurations, you would be a fool to start hardcoding that into your application, especially considering you never know what is coming down the pipe. Sure, a bad Android developer might create an application that will only work at 1 resolution but that would be bad in iOS land as well since there are 3 resolutions available (for now).<br><br>It is a <b>myth</b> that there is no fragmentation in iOS land and it is a <b>myth</b> that more fragmentation is worse than less fragmentation. Bad developers will create bad looking applications on iOS, Android, Windows, OS X, Linux, etc. while good developers will deal with the fragmentation that exists in <b>all</b> platforms and take care of them at run time.
    • RE: Is Android fragmentation preventing world domination?

      I abhor how everyone inaccurately describes 1 iPhone to 123489098 Android phones. Thank you for putting the facts down.

      Not to mention that 3 different hardware revisions of the iPhone have been on sale this calendar year as new.
      • RE: Is Android fragmentation preventing world domination?

        @alangerow <br><br>Except that all 3 phones have the same interface type (multi touch screen). All phones can run the same OS level (not necessarily as well as the others, but the 3 available CAN run it).<br><br>Also not to mention that the features offered in the latest OS that aren't supported in older models aren't required to run the apps. They are just required to take advantage of new features (in the apps ... ie you don't need background support to run an app that supports it).<br><br>Better to still be able to run Pandora on a 3G without multitasking, then to not have Pandora available at all (bad example, but the general idea).<br><br>And if you dismiss all that because you simply care to, then its still "3 different hardware revisions of the iPhone to 123489098 Android phones".<br><br>3 is a lot easier to test software on then 123489098.<br><br>The iPhone is far from perfect in the fragmentation arena, but without periodic hardware upgrades then you can't advance forward.<br><br>Now, releasing 4 or 5 different phones within the span of a month. Or releasing one phone and calling it the "Ultimate", and then releasing another phone a month later and calling it "Simply the best" ... and so on and so on.. It's hard NOT to call that fragmentation.
    • RE: Is Android fragmentation preventing world domination?

      @NonZealot It's certainly the case that all OS's have different versions but this is exacerbated on Android by the difficulty of ugrading to the latest OS version. My understand of this is, you have to wait till your OEM upgrades for you. On iOS you see all the apps available and if your OS version isn't high enough you can instantly upgrade. Android people seem to be proud of not showing apps at all to handsets that can't run them. I'm not sure this is such a good idea! Developers want people to at least see their apps!

      But the other half of the fragmentation coin is the penchant among oems for adding layers of crapware on top of Android so that the user, in some cases, does not experience the Android "look and feel" at all. This is potentially FATAL for Android as a brand. Apple would never allow such behaviour and, for that matter, neither would Microsoft. I know OEM add crapware to windows but crapware that hides Windows behind another user interface? In that case, Widnows would be reduced to just a set of libraries and could not be marketed as a brand. MS would never allow this, neither should Google.
      The Star King
    • RE: Is Android fragmentation preventing world domination?

      @NonZealot I tend to agree that there is some small amount of fragmentation in the iOS world due to the two different iOS devices (i.e. the iPhone/iPod Touch and the iPad) but to say this is the same as the Android fragmentation is inaccurate as there are apps for 20+ models that are rarely compatible as far as screen size, what version of Android they are running (which is also a slight issue in the iOS world as there are apps that require iOS 4), and even what "overlay" the carrier put on it.
  • World domination is bad. Freedom is good

    Why are most of the pundits trying to make Android like IOS?

    This is America, we want choice. If you want a well controlled OS then Apple is for you. If you want freedom, both financially and hardware-wise, then Android may be for you.

    Ain't competition just the greatest???!!!!!

    Freedom, freedom, freedom, freedom.
    • So this is the Roid you are wanting???

      @Hameiri <br><br><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"></a><br><br>Or do you prefer the iPhone wannabe Roids???<br><br>Freedom for Malware! Freedom for identity theft! Freedom from quality control! freedom from timely updates! Freedom from developers! Yeah Baby!!! Freedom, freedom, freedom, freedom. ROTFLMAO!!!
      • RE: Is Android fragmentation preventing world domination?

        @i8thecat Take a walk on the wild side! It's so boring cloistered up inside those Apple walls. There is a much bigger world out there.

        I'm not 24 hours off of my iPhone and on my Android and I feel freer already! There is still a big brother, but he's much less evil than the forbidden fruit (Apple).
        Schoolboy Bob
  • Get over the fragmentation spin already

    Over 60% of Android devices are on Android 2.x and growing daily. The iOS platform is getting more fragmented while the Android platform is making HUGE gains to close the gap. So in looking at the trend iOS is going in the *wrong* direction and Android is moving in the *right* direction.

    You can really tell what articles are written by iPhones...
  • RE: Is Android fragmentation preventing world domination?

    Yes, a bit more control over Android would be good, and we appear to be going there.

    On the other hand, we would need a radical change from Apple to make iOS palatable and that isn't going to happen.
  • Look at the ancestry of Android by purpose and foundation

    UNIX was hailed as the open source solution that would reign supreme over all IT at the server and the client level. It began in one tighter knit source and spread as open source. With each variant came more support for the grand ability to create the version you needed, and the cry that this would lead to a better client than Microsoft or Apple could provide.

    Then UNIX clients failed to gain traction, except amongst the most technical of the technical. Major players, including Ellison and Schmidt pushed for open source clients and competing app solutions based in teh UNIX space. But what happened?

    The individuals could never get their cooperative act together, they never figured out how to market to the masses, and all of the momentum they put into these efforts died out quickly.

    So here we are again, with an operating system being touted the same way that UNIX was 25 years ago, and it is suffering the same vulnerability that UNIX did back then. What will save Android from extinction is the fact that it does offer an alternative to the iOS solution, but it will not crush iOS because it will never be as easy to develop for the market as iOS and perhaps it will never be as stable as iOS because it must support so many variations of hardware and variation.

    Oddly enough, this is the same issue that plagues Microsoft. It developes an OS that runs on a vast number of hardware platforms not under its control. And with that loss of control comes potential failure that we see every day. So it is likely to go with Android, unless the industry says they will excert tight quality and performance control over the Android OS and insures that developers can develop once and deploy on the many.
    • RE: Is Android fragmentation preventing world domination?

      @rftrel "it will never be as easy to develop for the market as iOS"

      what?!?!?!?!? I can tell from that statement that you've never developed for either platform! Let me tell you with experience as a developer from BOTH platforms that Android is leaps and bounds easier than iPhone dev. That's just the way it is.

      look people, nobody gives a rats rear end that you prefer platform A and hate platform B. The truth is, they both have their merits. Apple puts a prioeity on control of the platform and Android puts a priority on freedom of the platform.

      if you prefer a controlled, but somewhat limited platform, then iPhone is right for you. If you prefer freedom, at the price of a less unified UI, then Android is right for you.

      enough already with the pointless fanboi-ism.

      A lecture for Apple fanbois (Android fanboi lecture comes next): you're wasting you time speaking of the virtues of a controlled invironment because Android users place freedom and choice at a higher value.

      A lecture for Android fanbois: you too are wasting your time talking to Apple fanbois about choice and freedom because they put a higher value on a more controlled experience.

      so, who's right? YOU BOTH ARE! Pick what works best for you and leave the guy alonw who chooses differently than you. Don't be so d***** closed minded. There's not just ONE right platform that fits all. Deal with it.
      Software Architect 1982
  • RE: Is Android fragmentation preventing world domination?

    I'm an odd sort here - I championed Android and Windows phones, and have an android phone now that will be sold on ebay soon ... I'm hopiing. Since I got this phone 6 months ago, it has only been updated once from 1.5 to 1.6 ... I think they need to get a grip and keep Android from making phones only 6 months old totally outdated and a pain for carriers to update. The people in my circle have been promised upgrades from 2.0 to 2.2 by our carrier, even on our devices (which at the time was the carrier's flagship Android phone model) and the cries have gotten louder to deliver the update or they/we are jumping ship.

    I'm jumping soon. I'm hoping the Windows 7 phone will fit my very simple needs-. If not, iOS here I come, like it or not. I can honestly say I feel pretty secure with either MS or Apple in that they will not obsolete my phone in 6 months with zero updates, and I'm sure MS will be conscious of the other issues such as screen size and diversity to make sure they avoid the Android trap.

    Does anyone know if the apps for Windows 7 phone will be functional on the Zune?
  • Why Apple Wins

    Apple recognise a very simple truth that both Microsoft and Google fail to recognise - most people don't want a device that is cleverer than they are!
    Both Mac OS and iOS are tightly controlled. They do one thing each, pretty well. If you want your email, shut everything else down. If you want to read or write something, then focus only on that.
    Windows and Google both present a UI with alerts, pop-ups, loads of opportunities for distraction which, quite frankly, limit productivity. Only a minority of people actually want this.
    Will it always be this way? Quite a lot of processing power on my Windows 7 laptop goes on running the background security suites, and when cyberthreats become a reality in Appletown then even new machines will probably slow to a crawl - but for now, Average Joe Punter is happy with his/her machine that does one thing at a time and doesn't upstage them in the brain department.