Taking Android fragmentation to the next level

Taking Android fragmentation to the next level

Summary: Cyanogenmod is going pro, turning into a real company. There's a lot that's good about this, but it will exacerbate the biggest problem Android has.

taking android fragmentation next level

If all Google did with Android was to make another closed, proprietary stack, it's unlikely it would have gone all that far. In fact, everything Google did was designed to grow Android as far and as fast as possible. The most fundamental of these was to make Android itself open source.

This strategy has been a raving success, with Android clearly the 800 pound gorilla of the handset market worldwide, but it hasn't been without cost; the huge variety of Android versions, devices, and screen geometries, plus the fact that every phone has code from both the manufacturer and carrier makes the configuration matrix huge; all this makes development and testing a challenge.  Compare this to Apple, which has a few phones, on which all the code is theirs, and nearly all users run the current version of the OS (well maybe not today, but soon everyone will go up to iOS7).

But anyone can take the Android source code, modify it and make their own distribution. Perhaps more than any other open source project, this has been a popular feature.

The biggest group creating custom Android versions, or mods, is Cyanogenmod, and now they're going commercial. They've got venture capital and they're already working on things that they didn't have time for when it was just a hobby.

This is very cool in many ways. Right now, nearly everyone (in the US anyway) gets their copy of Android from one of the big carriers. These companies 1) install crapware on the phone that you can't remove without rooting it, and 2) usually don't provide upgrades of Android, even when they would run just fine on the phone.

Of course they do this because they're in a position to push you around and they want to maximize the amount of money they can get out of you. The lack of Android updates is a tactic to make you want to get a new phone when the new phones come out with a new, better Android. They lose money on that new phone, but they make a ton on the 2 year plan you buy in order to get the phone at an affordable price. And when a problem develops in your 20 month-old phone with an old Android version on it, nobody involved has much of an incentive to do much to fix it.

Cyanogenmod and the other modders aim to give you OS options for your phone. You can get innovative features that Google and the carrier won't provide, you get no crapware, you get updates very quickly, and it's all based on the same code that the carriers use to make their lame versions.

But there's essentially no chance that modders can take significant market share from the carriers: the main reason for this is that the throwing arbitrary distributions into the mix limits the ability of carriers to support phones. It may be that if you call up or go into a  store, the carrier will do all they can to help you, but the odds that you'll get competent support for a modded phone are low.

Very few ordinary users will dare going this way, and it would be a bad decision for them to do so. Many of the support calls the carriers field amount to "How do I this Android thing?" If the customer could have any old distribution, support could not function, at least not with affordable employees working off of scripts. In this, the carriers are actually being reasonable.

A better market for modders, I think, is device resale. There are already many places you can buy used/refurbished phones and tablets, but perhaps those organizations could mod the phone up to the current Android level. That would make it much more appealing. It's not going to have support from the handset maker or carrier anyway, at least not for Android.

But all this ends up further fragmenting Android. Even if the versions all tend to get more modern (as they definitely are), the sheer variety of target platforms has to increase the number of potential problems.

So I'm happy for Cyanogenmod. Read their story, it's hard not to like them. And I wish them well, but I'm under no illusions that it will help with the fragmentation problem. The world of Android just keeps getting more and more complicated.

[This story was edited to correct typos.]

Topics: Security, Android, Mobile OS

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  • Android OS Itself Is Complicated

    Android in app developers view is complicated, from handsets manufacturers is complicated, from buyers choices is complicated, and least but not last from not techie users is also very complicated.

    Anyone could rumble around here disagreeing with this statement of mine, but may forget the fact that we are who read this kind of stuff is actually a techie kind of people who know how to toy with our gadget(a), a very small amount of percentage compared with how many people buying all kinds of Android handsets.

    Now I sound complicated.
    • if anything, CM will help solve fragmentation

      The main cause if fragmentation is OEMs who refuse to upgrade their devices - largely because with the telco subsidized device model, they can sell you a new one every two years. In any case, that's where CM steps in. They help you upgrade your device when the manufacturer won't. That's not fragmentation. CM adds features to their ROMs too, but that's not fragmentation either. As long as all apps can run, it doesn't matter that the OS or launcher offers a few additional settings to the user. If CM starts making money and can help less tech users stay up to date, that's all to the good - and the opposite of fragmentation.
      little noodles
    • Android is as complicated as you want it to be

      If you want easy, Android is easy out of the box.
      When you want more, Android is ready for more.
      With iOS and WP, you hit OS limitations when you are ready for more - you are locked in to EASY mode. You can't get out of first gear unless you want to jailbreak the OS and lose ecosystem features. At that point, you develop expertise in working around the OS limitations. Everybody gets to that point more or less, almost nobody stays within EASY mode forever.
      As for CM, the whole concept is all about a unified alternative to as many devices as possible.
      It's about unleashing ALL the power of the device and then some (overclocking for speed, undervolting for battery life).
      For those who are not aware, CM does daily updates, YES DAILY.
      Zero day vulnerability reported? Bang! patched within 24hours. Source available to compile for every device. Stop whinging about lack of updates on Android when CM offers the fastest updates available. You don't even need to be a Linux nerd, updates for modded ROMs are now as easy as doing OTA updates for a lot of devices - granted that rooting some devices can be complicated, but once done, the updates are easy.
      It's not fragmentation but rather de-fragmentation.
      • nightly vs stable

        one thing to keep in mind about nighties is that not every person wants to constantly flash flash flash their phone everytime there's a release. Many of us are burnt out on flashing all the time and as a result we just want something called STABLE releases.

        I know you're about to say "well don't flash if you don't want, no one's forcing you to" - which is missing the point. The early versions of CM are nice, but all too often are missing many of what are critical features that no manufacturer would allow out the door, eg. Bluetooth not fully working, Dialer(!) not working properly, Wifi...the list goes on.

        CM bottom line is very experimental and with the exception of their stable releases, should be treated as such. It's not for the average Joe who barely knows how to turn on his computer. It's for the modders and people who want to leave on the edge. As a person who was once addicted to flashing...I flashed everything...CM, ARHD, InsertCoin, and a dozen more I can't even credit right now. I eventually stuck to ARHD because it's one of the least modified ROM's. All too often, the others have this little problem, that little problem...I just want a phone that WORKS, and not have the strangest force closes or crashes.
  • Fragmentation problem??

    I don't suspect this will create any more or less of an issue.
    I have a Galaxy S2 running the latest Cyanogenmod JB4.3 build (and 2 galaxy tab 2's also running that version).
    No problems, no issues. It's an Android version/device that's never in the wild apart from custom roms. But it just works. Better than ever, the performance is excellent. Screen size, same as others offered.
    I really like the phone itself, and CM gives be everything to prevent having to upgrade to a phone I like less just for new software.
    • Exactly

      The larger question is: why can't the carriers or manufacturers push Android updates to the phones?

      I have an HP TouchPad I purchased during the fire sale. It runs CM10 great. If Cyanogenmod can create CM10 that runs very well on the HP TouchPad, you'd think the carriers and manufacturers could update Android on the phones.
      • Tell me more

        Last I saw (many months ago), CM was in "alpha" for Touchpad, with LOTS of things not working. Have these issues really been resolved? My Touchpad has been waiting patiently for a better OS....
        • Hmm

      • Google is working on getting carriers to push out updates faster

        I don't have the link, but I have read that Google has started activity to get carriers to push updates out more quickly.
      • CM10 rocks!

        I've got it running on my old Nook Color (off of the SDCard so I can dual boot the Nook OS and CM10)... I'd love to see an autoinstaller though. Cyanogenmod as it's own company is a good thing and I think they do more to fix any fragmentation issues than Google does.
      • we don't need updates from carriers

        What we need is OEMS to release the source for the device drivers.
        Google should have required that all OEMS that use their Android source submit all source code they used in building each release including drivers and radios - in the true essence of Open Source. With the source for drivers, we don't need the carriers or manufacturers to handle updates - there's plenty of people who can do it better and anyone can DIY if inclined.
        The biggest problem is lack of hardware layer source code. Solve that and the updates are no problem.
        • OEMs aren't the problem

          The OEMs release the updates. However, the carriers have to go thru their testing process. Not to mention, they can choose not to push the update so that their customers are forced into getting the newest model because the carrier commissioned the new models.

          But you're absolutely correct, there are plenty of others that can do it better. Cyanogenmod happens to be the best and they have been out the longest. There's also the ACS (Android Creative Syndicate) among others.

          That's why Google released the Nexus line - to cut the carriers out of the loop.
    • Really?

      "No problems, no issues"? Really? I waited on CM 10 for Galaxy SII for a lonnnng time. It's *still* not out. I admit, I stopped following it many months ago, but the last time I looked there WERE ISSUES. I think you're saying you can live with the "issues"--that they're not important TO YOU. Hardly the same thing.
      • Yes, Really

        I have CM10.2.2 based on JB 4.3 running on the SII.
        No issues that I've spotted at all (there may be some that I've not identified).
        Installed just over a month after JB 4.3 released by Google (and the same versions for the Tab 2s).
        It's a nightly build, it works just fine. Very smooth, no hangs, no glitches, excellent performance. Dunno what you're talking about.
        • Thanks

          When they have a "release" version with the installer they talked about, I will take another look.
  • ignorant to open source much?

    The very concept of open source avoids what you are claiming you 'know'.
    Particularly when an open source community grows large enough to become the king of the hill, with a reputation for quality - that attracts even more developers to join the peer-review community.

    From your angry words, I suspect that maybe you are one of the developers who didn't make the cut - who found himself struggling in an environment that does adhere to standards that are more professional than basement-dweller, and so your hacks were cut from the project. Tough break for you.
    Cry somewhere else.
    • open source doesn't automagically equal best in classs quality

      these modders of ROM's are frequently one-man shows and do not have the time manpower nor the time, to QA test every little nook and cranny of their custom ROMs.

      This is the reason why you see ROMs on XDA, with users who spot the strangest bugs and/or force closes in situations where it should never happen. The alpha/beta releases even in many cases have critical features which outright don't work. Even for situations where they strip out Touchwiz or Sense...elements of those skins still linger behind(with the exception of the GE editions of course). Point is, quality does suffer sometimes.
  • Oppo Phones

    One manufacturer, Oppo, actually supports a few ROMs out-of-the-box. I believe they offer full support for CyanogenMod, Paranoid Android, and Pac ROM. Oppo is mostly known for their excellent BluRay players, but they've been getting pretty good reviews on their phones too.
    • oppo

      Oppo's only really available in China though. Not sure how it'll do if you order one from overseas and have it shipped over.
  • Nexus Devices

    Thanks to the carriers, even the Nexus line of phones had their updates stalled. Verizon being the worst of the perpetrators. Apple has a ton of leverage right now, so that is the only reason that they have been immune to this issue. If (or when) their market share drops, Apple will be loaded with just as much crapware (for carrier subsidized phones) and suffer the same issues.