Did Google ever have a plan to curb Android fragmentation?

Make the users care about updates, and the people standing in the way of those updates will sit up and pay attention to things.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor
Another day, another set of Android fragmentation stories. And while there's no doubt that there is wide fragmentation within the platform, and there's not real solution in sight, I'm starting to wonder if Google ever had a plan to prevent the platform for becoming a fragmented mess.

How bad's the problem? Jon Evans over on TechCrunch tells it like it is:

OS fragmentation, though, is an utter disaster. Ice Cream Sandwich is by all accounts very nice; but what good does that do app developers, when according to Google’s own stats, 30% of all Android devices are still running an OS that is 20 months old?


More than two-thirds of iOS users had upgraded to iOS 5 a mere three months after its release. Anyone out there think that Ice Cream Sandwich will crack the 20% mark on Google’s platform pie chart by March?

He then goes on to deliver the killer blow:

OS fragmentation is the single greatest problem Android faces, and it’s only going to get worse. Android’s massive success over the last year mean that there are now tens if not hundreds of millions of users whose handset manufacturers and carriers may or may not allow them to upgrade their OS someday; and the larger that number grows, the more loath app developers will become to turn their back on them. That unwillingness to use new features means Android apps will fall further and further behind their iOS equivalents, unless Google manages – via carrot, stick, or both – to coerce Android carriers and manufacturers to prioritize OS upgrades.

And that's the core problem with Android. While there's no doubt that consumers who've bought Android devices are being screwed out of updates that they deserve (the take up of Android 4.0 'Ice Cream Sandwich' is pretty poor so far), the biggest risk from fragmentation is that developers will ignore new Android features an instead focus on supporting older but more mainstream feature sets. After all, developers want to hit the masses, not the fringes. Also, the more platforms developers have to support, the more testing work there is.

OK, so Android is fragmented, and it's a problem that Google doesn't seem willing to tackle. But the more I look at the Android platform and the associated ecosystem, it makes me wonder if Google ever had any plan (or for that matter intention) to control platform fragmentation.

But could Google have done anything to control fragmentation? Former Microsoftie (and now investor) Charlie Kindel thinks there no hope to curb fragmentation. In fact, he believes that most things will make it worse. I disagree with Kindel on this matter. He also believes that Google's current strategy amounts to little more that wishing that everyone will upgrade. On this point we are in total agreement.

I disagree with Kindel that that there's nothing that Google can do to at least try to discourage fragmentation. I believe that one of Google's strongest cards are Android users themselves. Look at how enthusiastic iPhone and iPad owners are about iOS updates. They're enthusiastic because Apple tells them why they should be enthusiastic about new updates. Compare this to Google's approach to Android customers. Google (or anyone else in the chain for that matter) doesn't seem to be doing much to get people fired up and enthusiastic about Android. In fact, it seems to me the only message being given to Android customers is 'buy another Android handset.'

I understand that Google isn't Apple and can't seem to sway the crowds in the same way, but it might start to help if the search giant seemed to care about the OS. The absence of enthusiasm make the seem Sphinx-like and uncaring. Why should anyone care about new Android updates when Google itself doesn't really seem all that excited? If Google created a real demand for Android updates from the end users, this would put put pressure on the handset makers and the carriers to get updates in a timely fashion to users.

Make the users care about updates, and the people standing in the way of those updates will sit up and pay attention to things.


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