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

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.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

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

Editorial standards