Android's Biggest Worry: Fragmentation

Android's Biggest Worry: Fragmentation

Summary: Android's biggest worry isn't the iPhone, the Blackberry, or Windows Phone 7; it's that it will fragment into multiple incompatible, brand-specific versions.

SHARE:

I like Android a lot. It's Linux's biggest end-user success story. Android has great applications. It works well for me in my Motorola Droid 2. And, Android's smartphone market-share is growing fast. Indeed, analysts such as Piper Jaffray predict that eventually Android will become the number one smartphone operating system in the world. If, that is, everything goes right.

So what could go wrong? The iPhone wipes it off the map? I don't think so. Don't get me wrong, the iPhone is a great phone. But, you'll never see new, inexpensive iPhones. Apple's preferred place in the market is to be the Porsche of computers: they don't sell cheap anything. Windows Phone 7? It's better than ever, but that's not saying much. Blackberry? Symbian? MeeGo? Too little, dead in the water, and not fast enough off the mark. No, what Android has to worry about isn't the competition, it's concerns are its friends.

You see, all the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), like Motorola and HTC put their own software, Sense UI and Motoblur respectively, on top of Android. Then, all the carriers add their own special-sauce of applications.

It can get messy. On top of this, there's multiple current versions of Android out and supported at any given moment on the same hardware. While Dan Morrill, Google's Open Source & Compatibility Program Manager, can say Android "Fragmentation is a bogeyman, a red herring, a story you tell to frighten junior developers," it's not. It's a real problem.

Ask any independent software vendor (ISV) if they want to program for multiple versions of the same operating system and they'll tell you “Hell no!” Better still, do what Tech N' Marketing did and ask Peter Vesterbacka, one of Rovio's founders and an Angry Bird developer. Vesterbacka said, “Android is growing, but it’s also growing complexity at the same time. Device fragmentation not the issue, but rather the fragmentation of the ecosystem. So many different shops, so many different models. The carriers messing with the experience again. Open but not really open, a very Google-centric ecosystem.”

If the makers of the number one mobile game in the world are concerned, it's a real concern. It's not just a scary story for baby programmers.

I still think Android will be number one, but this makes me worry. I recall the pre-IBM PCs days when vendors like DEC, Osborne, and KayPro made PCs that were based on the CP/M-80 operating system. In theory, you could use one CP/M program on any CP/M micro-computer. In practice, it was almost impossible.

We're no-where near that kind of situation with Android. But, then I recall that at the time no one saw all those dozens of CP/M-computer companies being swept away by Bill Gates' buying Tim Paterson's CP/M clone, labeling it 86-DOS, and then selling it to IBM to 'create' Microsoft's first operating system, PC-DOS. If Google doesn't do a better job of keeping all the OEM and carrier developers on the same page, I could see “vanilla” Android being replaced by a more standardized version. I really, really don't want to see even a remote chance of that happening.

Topics: Software Development, Android, Google, Hardware, Mobility, Operating Systems, Smartphones, Software

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

Talkback

78 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • It's not often I agree with you SJVN

    Android could be much better and I hope they improve it soon.

    Google has made other fragmentation mistakes, such as Chrome...why couldnt they blend Chrome and Android?

    In the US, Android is going to lose a lot when iPhone comes to Verizon. The competition is really heating up!
    otaddy
    • When you say "blend Chrome and Android" do you mean...

      @otaddy

      ...ChromeOS or Chrome Browser. If the former I'd say why? They are made for completely different platforms, one is for Netbooks and bigger, the other is for Smartphones & Tablets.

      If the latter, then your saying why couldn't they blend a Browser with a Linux Based OS for a phone <insert suitable analogy here>.

      The iPhone is already available on all carriers in the UK, but as far as I am aware it hasn't killed Android's adoption rate over here. As SJVN says, Apple won't make a cheap iPhone, but Android comes on a vastly diversely priced handsets.
      DevJonny
      • RE: Android's Biggest Worry: Fragmentation

        @DevJonny <br><br>Android itself is designed for resolution independence, so "bigger" is irrelevant from that point of view.<br><br>So what exactly prevents Android from appearing on Netbooks? Not really anything other than how Google is pushing it.<br><br>And if Android can be on a Netbook, otaddy's original point is valid. Android has a browser (based on Webkit, which is also the basis for Chrome's browser/OS). In that respect, Chrome OS is a weaker and arguably redundant project.
        PolymorphicNinja
      • Again, why two systems

        @DevJonny

        Can't one or the other handle phones and tablets?

        Why fragment from the start?
        otaddy
      • Android handles phones AND tablets...ChromeOS handles PCs in the same way..

        @otaddy

        ...that iOS handles iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch and OSX handles desktops / laptops, and in the same way that Windows Phone 7 handles phones and XP/Vista/7 handles desktops & laptops!

        I don't understand why you're saying ChromeOS & Android is fragmentation? Their aimed at two different areas ones for Computers the other is for handhelds...
        DevJonny
      • @PolymorphicNinja Valid point, however...

        ...Chrome OS is a Cloud based OS. It's not meant to have local data storage, and local apps.

        Although yes you could port Android to bigger form factors, that doesn't invalid ChromeOS which has seperate purpose.
        DevJonny
      • RE: Android's Biggest Worry: Fragmentation

        @DevJonny <br>"Cloud based OS" is a marketing term invented by Google. <br><br>Just about every OS is capable of consuming cloud content. Windows, OSX, iOS, nearly all flavors of Linux (including Android). Even the XBox, Wii and PS3 are capable of doing this. <br><br>So what exactly is a "Cloud based OS" (other than a fancy term for "rich content dumb terminal")? Or rather.. why is it anything noteworthy if it's merely a PC that boots up exclusively into a Webkit browser? And if that's all it is, why is it taking them so long to bring it to life? <br><br>Especially given that a netbook/desktop/laptop grade computer is better equipped to handle local storage and applications than handsets, it seems odd that Chrome OS would be crippled in that respect. <br><br>Here is the strategy around Chrome OS: Google's entire livelihood lies behind cloud services and browser consumable content, particularly in the search and advertisement realm. If the only program you can run on a computer is the browser, Google's applications are far more relevant than their competition on the traditional OS front (i.e. Windows). Google is attempting to lock out other options while simultaneously driving internet traffic toward their services.<br><br>Google's last attempt to disrupt popular computer usage (social networks with Google Wave) wasn't successful at all. Chrome OS could be a runaway hit. But given where their priorities lie and how they've handled slow projects like this in the past, I'm pretty skeptical.
        PolymorphicNinja
    • RE: Android's Biggest Worry: Fragmentation

      @otaddy

      Assuming the iPhone IS coming to Verizon. Only analysis are saying that will happen. It may happen eventually, but nobody really knows.
      DonRupertBitByte
    • RE: Android's Biggest Worry: Fragmentation

      The iPhone is already available <a href="http://www.selftestexams.com/650-293.html ">650-293 exam</a> on all carriers in the UK, but as far as I am aware it hasn't killed Android's adoption rate over here. As SJVN says,<a href="http://www.selftestexams.com/NS0-502.html">NS0-502 exam</a> Apple won't make a cheap iPhone, but Android comes on <a href="http://www.selftestexams.com/650-295.html ">650-295 exam</a> a vastly diversely priced handsets.
      foter
  • The discipline of the market will

    eventually force a consolidation. Fragmentation happens because firms are jockeying for dominance. Eventually the weaker players will fall by the wayside, and a very few dominant players will emerge.<br><br>If Google can keep setting the gold standard for Android, this will also force a certain conformity on the manufacturers.<br><br>The PC market was fragmented in the beginning as well, but that did not last long.
    Economister
    • &quot;The PC market was fragmented in the beginning as well,....

      but that did not last long."<br>Big difference with Android, Econo! Microsoft ruled the world, and everybody ran pretty much the same version of MS whatever. But with Android, the carriers get to dink around with it and "customize" it to mark their territory. If everybody ran vanilla Android, what would differentiate one carrier from another? I think you're being extremely optimistic to think things will eventually settle out to a "standard" version. Ah, the joys of open source!
      Userama
      • I would disagree

        @Userama
        The fact that Windows and OS X are "standardized is the fact that they are closed.

        As long as Android remains open, carriers will continue to "dink" around with it creating an exclusive version for themselves.
        Tim Cook
      • RE: Android's Biggest Worry: Fragmentation

        @Userama I agree and I think that is one of the failures of Linux on the Desktop. Soo many choices no advertising and no or little marketing...now the later two are not Androids problem. But fragmentation could be a problem and Google, will probably get the blame, even though they are not the problem.
        ItsTheBottomLine
      • Google not the problem?

        @ItsTheBottomLine
        I'm not so sure about that. Google could solve the fragmentation problem by requiring carriers NOT to dink with Android, making it more civilized. But then they wouldn't be "open" and "free". They're kind of between a rock and a hard place. If they DON'T exert control, there will be chaos. If they DO, they'll be accused of being in the "walled garden" and "draconian", just like you-know-who!
        Userama
      • He's Talking About Earlier

        @Userama
        Microsoft did not "rule the world" at least until after the release of Microsoft Windows 3.1 (and really not until Win 95). I would think that Economister was talking about before that time. That is back when you could get DOS from three different companies (Microsoft, IBM, and Digital Research), or possibly even earlier than that.
        CFWhitman
    • RE: Android's Biggest Worry: Fragmentation

      @Economister
      Market discipline won't help here; to use an analogy, consider that a very sizable chunk of Internet Explorer users are still on IE6- as a web developer, I can tell you quite confidently that many websites will soak hundreds, if not thousands, into make sure that their website works right in IE6 and 7. In two years or less, Android developers will have the same problem- my phone is running 2.1, and there are no visible signs of an upgrade coming anytime soon short of rooting the phone and doing it myself.
      dzdrazil
      • &quot;my phone is running 2.1 ...&quot;

        @dzdrazil Do it yourself! It's not that hard. Just make sure what you are installing is stable (don't be a pioneer unless you are ready for that).
        Schoolboy Bob
    • RE: Android's Biggest Worry: Fragmentation

      @Economister

      MS controlled its OS with an iron hand. Google isn't doing that. The Android situation is very different.

      1. The hardware OEMs are all futzing around with Android to make the products "special." They will also try other OSes with no hesitation. See Samsung (Bada) and HP (Palm) and Dell (WM7). That was never the case with Windows.
      2. The telcos are only interested in locking customers to their services and subscriptions and will gladly nix Google services from their Android phones.
      3. Google isn't selling you phones, they are selling your eyeballs to advertisers, that's why they don't care if the hardware is excellent or has the latest OS or that the ecosystem is completely fragmented with multiple completing app stores.
      Synthmeister
  • RE: Android's Biggest Worry: Fragmentation

    "Blackberry? Symbian? MeeGo? Too little, dead in the water, and not fast enough off the mark." You forgot Bada. It seems to be selling reasonably well - 1 million sales in only 4 weeks - but can it continue to compete in the longer term?
    Wakemewhentrollsgone
    • RE: Android's Biggest Worry: Fragmentation

      @ptorning Bada is... interesting. I'm watching them but I don't know enough to make an informed opinion about it yet. They're a dark horse, but the first implemenation, the Samsung S8500 Wave, is impressive.

      Steven
      sjvn@...