Back in 2007, Google and its partners in the Open Handset Alliance set out with the goal of developing open standards for smartphones. Android was to be a great equaliser, creating a level playing field for manufacturers and developers. It was a vision with clear appeal. That’s partly why, 10 years or so later, Android is the dominant mobile platform
The open ideals that it was founded upon led to unprecedented diversity and a huge smartphone revolution, but they also sparked one of the most persistent criticisms of Android: Fragmentation. There’s a fairly universal perception that Android fragmentation is a barrier to a consistent user experience, a security risk, and a challenge for app developers.
But will Google ever end fragmentation? What is it doing to tackle the issue? And why is it taking so long?
Wait, what exactly is fragmentation?
Concerns and warnings about the impact of fragmentation are as old as Android itself.
“Literally before the close of business on the same day we announced Android (4:46pm to be precise), I saw the first article about Android fragmentation,” wrote then Open Source & Compatibility Program Manager, Dan Morrill, in a 2010 blog post on the official Android developer site. “The thing is, nobody ever defined ‘fragmentation’ — or rather, everybody has a different definition.”
We could be talking about the different versions of Android, the multitude of different devices, the manufacturer skins that sit on top, or even forks, like Amazon’s Fire OS.
What’s cited most often is the slow pace of adoption for new Android versions. Less than 1 percent of devices run the latest Android 9.0 Pie today, 21.5 percent run Oreo (version 8.0 or 8.1 of the OS), 28.2 percent run Nougat, and the rest are still running older versions, according to the latest data from the official Android developer site. This is frequently compared to iOS, where Apple said 53 percent of users are on iOS 12, 40 percent on iOS 11, and just 7 percent on earlier versions.
For ordinary folks who own a phone, fragmentation means that many Android device owners don’t have access to the latest and greatest features in the platform, but it has also been consistently raised as a major threat to security. Tim Cook famously referenced an article on ZDNet, entitled “Android fragmentation turning devices into a toxic hellstew of vulnerabilities” on a slide at WWDC in 2014. He even added animated flames to the word “hellstew” for a greater incendiary impact, and it played into a common perception of Android as potentially insecure.
It’s a criticism that Google has struggled to deal with. Adoption of the latest version of Android isn’t just about getting the latest features; it’s also about getting the latest bug fixes and security updates. We can see how Google would like things to run by looking at the Pixel line, where it rolls out platform updates quickly and monthly security patches are released over-the-air. The problem is that Google cannot, or will not, force manufacturers and carriers to do the same.
Android phone manufacturers try to add value and differentiate their devices by adding their own custom user interfaces, but that additional layer of software on top of Android means an extra round of testing and tweaking before a new version can be released. Wireless carriers have their own demands about how updates should be tested and rolled out, as well. If you want to get an idea of how it works check out this HTC infographic.
Issuing phone updates through wireless carriers is a complex process that’s time-consuming and costly. If you don’t count customer satisfaction (over time), there isn’t much incentive for manufacturers to push out new Android versions, either. Their business model isn’t based on extending the life of your smartphone. Just the opposite, in fact: It would be better for them if you bought a new one. There’s plenty of evidence that phone owners are getting fed up with this attitude. A Dutch consumer group sued Samsung for not updating Android on 82 percent of its phones.
What is Google doing to combat fragmentation?
Google has tried various strategies to tackle fragmentation, with mixed success. A lot of new features and security updates actually come through Google Play Services now, which is updated independently of the platform. Google also frequently rolls out major new features to its suite of apps, like Google Maps or Gmail, as app updates, while Apple bundles them into an annual iOS update. The Material Design libraries and guidelines were also designed to create a uniform look and feel across the platform.
Google tried to persuade manufacturers to release stock Android versions of their devices with its short-lived Google Play Edition program, but it failed to take off and ended quietly quite some time ago. The Android One program is a rare example of Google exerting more control over the hardware experience, but it has taken a long time to build any momentum. Most Nokia phones built by HMD Global run Android One.
For a time, there were rumors that Google might build its own smartphone processors. This would potentially enable it to more closely align new features and functionality in the Android platform with the hardware that will run them, just like Apple does with iOS. But it has never happened. What did happen was Project Treble, which has made it a bit faster and easier for phone makers to organize Android updates for their devices by separating low-level code that relates to the processor, modem, and other hardware, so they don’t need to be updated every time a new Android version comes along. Previously, the phone maker would have had to wait for the chipset provider, usually Qualcomm, to update that hardware code.
Project Treble and Google’s other efforts have no doubt had a positive impact. In 2018, both the OnePlus 6 and the Essential Phone released Android Pie or a beta for it as soon as Google released the version. Sony has the XZ3, which runs Pie, and Huawei’s Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro are also on the latest version. But you only need to look at the devices waiting for Android 9.0 Pie updates to see there’s still a problem here. Google is stuck between a rock and a hard place because Android was originally intended to be an open platform to promote device innovation and variety. There’s no doubt it was a success. There are more than 2 billion monthly active users of Android. But there was a high price for that success.
How Google could fix the problem
Google could try to put a foot down and enforce a unified update system, threatening to pull its services from manufacturers that don’t fall into line. But, if it does that, then the company will be criticized for going against those open ideals — and there’s always a risk that some phone makers may choose to ditch Android altogether.
There isn’t much incentive for manufacturers to push out new Android versions.
On the other hand, it’s abundantly clear that most manufacturers and carriers are still not going to handle updates in a timely manner if left to their own devices. That leaves many Android users with outdated firmware and potential security holes, despite the fact that the hardware they own is perfectly capable of running the latest Android releases.
Whatever you think about fragmentation, it doesn’t seem to put much of a dent in Android’s popularity. The OS accounted for 85.9 percent of all smartphone sales worldwide. There isn’t much evidence it’s discouraging developers from creating new apps for Android either. There are more than 2.5 million apps in the Google Play Store now, despite some major culls, according to AppBrain.
That doesn’t mean things can’t or shouldn’t improve. Imagine a system where manufacturer user interfaces like Samsung’s Experience and Huawei’s EMUI were replaced by apps and launchers. All pre-installed manufacturer and carrier apps could be uninstalled if you didn’t want them. Android updates would come directly from Google over-the-air, just as they do with Pixel devices right now, and iPhones. That would be a better system for Android device owners, and a lot safer. But if we want fragmentation to end, we’re going to have to demand it.