From Fragmentation to Obsolescence: Problems with the Android Ecosystem

With recent news that there are now over 500,000 Android devices being activated daily, it’s hard to ignore the scale and reach of Android. Moreover, if you’re not yet an Android user, should you be following the herd being led by Andy Rubin, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin?

There are already many articles detailing the benefits of Android including the fact that it’s an open ecosystem, it hosts a vast array of device choices and form factors with a number of different manufacturers, devices are available at all price points from low-end entry level phones to high-end superphones, and at the cream of the crop Android represents one of the most powerful mobile computing platforms out there with support for modern web standards (HTML 5, Adobe Flash, Webkit-based browser), a healthy apps ecosystem, and a vibrant community of developers, hackers, tinkerers, and gurus who push the boundaries through rooting and ROMs to make your devices better than what manufacturers, Google, and carriers had envisioned. So instead, I’ll focus on some of the sour points of Android.

1. Fragmentation: This issue’s been beaten to death, but it still is a big obstacle for Google to overcome as there is fragmentation of the ecosytem on the hardware and on the software side–the former is something that Google isn’t necessarily the culprit of and the latter is something that is a double-edged sword in that fast advancements in the development of the still nascent OS is both a benefit and a drawback.

On the hardware fragmentation side, this is probably one reason why developers are still watching the Android space before releasing apps. On the smartphone side alone, there are a number of screen resolutions (QVGA, WQVGA, VGA, WVGA, FWVGA, and now qHD), a number of processor clock speeds made from various different companies all with varying graphics capabilities (Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, NVIDIA, Freescale, Samsung, and others), and various memory and storage space configurations. On iOS, there is only one iPhone, and several generations of the product available and usually developers target the most recent two or three generations of the iPhone to ensure broad compatibility. On Android, the complexity of the hardware environment leads to compatibility challenges that developers must address and tackle so some apps may work better on some phones than others, and it will be up to the user to decipher if their specific phone model is compatible with the app and if the app will be optimal with their device choice. The confusion of which phone will work with Netflix is enough to put off a few users from adopting the platform.

2. Obsolescence: While on the surface, Google’s aggressive push to release successive versions of the Android operating system shows that the company is trying to stay ahead to maintain a competitive edge with Android as well as its commitment to the platform, such a commitment does have its downside as well. For one, often times, carriers and manufacturers do not promise that today’s Android models will automatically get updated to tomorrow’s edition of the Android OS when Google releases it. And if an update is promised or even delivered, it is often delivered late.

The exception to this rule is a Google-branded Nexus product, which gets update delivered directly from Google and doesn’t need to get re-tested by manufacturers who may want to layer their own UIs and UXes on top.

So while Google announced Android 2.3 Gingerbread in December, it is now six months later and only a few devices have gotten the Gingerbread update and only a few new devices have launched with Gingerbread pre-loaded. The flagship HTC Thunderbolt for Verizon Wireless with 4G LTE did not get Gingerbread out of the box, and though Verizon and HTC are promising an update it’s unclear when that will happen now.

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Most likely, when the update for Gingerbread hits, it will only be new for a few months before the next iteration of Android–Ice Cream Sandwich.

So while Google has been one of the early players to deliver OTA software updates on a mobile platform, it’s lack of control of the ecosystem makes it hard to ensure that devices are kept up to date. Compared with the rigid control exerted by Microsoft with Windows Phone 7 and Apple with iOS, Android’s major upgrades (like between 2.2 to 2.3) is un-coordinated at best and just wishful thinking at worse.

It’s a bit un-nerving to know that the Thunderbolt that I had purchased a few months ago was released with a dated operating system, and that by time it gets an update, it may soon become dated again as the attention will then shift from Gingerbread to Ice Cream Sandwich. In the world of Android, it seems that in order to not get an obsolete version of the OS, one simply must buy a Nexus phone. Though as it stands, not every Android phone owner buys a Nexus product so most Android users will probably just buy a phone with a dated OS.

So 500,000 Android users a day. It’s kind of puzzling of the sheer number of adopters who are being suckered into a new handset with a dated version of an OS. I’ll admit, I am one of those just for the mere benefit of Verizon’s 4G LTE support on a mobile phone.

Comments

    • Djordje_rosic says

      Agreed, and rooting the phone takes care of most of these issues because you are In charge of your own updates.

      • Gru says

        yet you then lose the ability to use “approved” apps. Netflix being a good example. Hulu is following suit..

        If the answer to most problems is “root your phone” then you have a lousy product. 

      • Gru says

        yet you then lose the ability to use “approved” apps. Netflix being a good example. Hulu is following suit..

        If the answer to most problems is “root your phone” then you have a lousy product. 

    • Anonymous says

      How can you possible live with 2.2 and not 2.3.  Better copy and paste is essential.  You might as well throw your phone out.

  1. Len Waugh says

    Mr. Nguyen, in your experience what software have you downloaded that you could not run on your device due to fragmentation? I call BS. In fact, what this is, is a blogger who wants to drum up extra views, and negativity draws more views then positive comments. And theirs nothing like the top dog of the mobile industry for fans of less popular devices to smear. Please take my advice, keep your irrational bias to yourself and quit trying to pretend you know anything about this stuff.

  2. Anonymous says

    Fragmentation is a lie, Netflix works perfectly fine on rooted phones, and if the author find the solution for stopping the things from being obsolete – he will be the first one in the Universe.

  3. Nemesis02 says

    The problem here is like was mentioned above, its the phone developer’s fault for these issues.  They want to sell a device that stands out from the rest, so they make their tweaks to the OS and because of this, they can’t keep up with the rate to which Google is updating their OS.  If they would just load the plain vanilla Google Android OS to these devices without modification, they could release updates just as quick as the Nexus.

    As an alternative, when an update is released, allow the user the choice from having their strawberry swirl android OS that plain vanilla version so it both allows us to update if we so choose and give them more time to redevelop those little tweaks that sets their devices apart from the rest.

  4. Anonymous says

    There’s little to worry about fragmentation,even developers think the media is just blowing it way out of proportion and i reckon so too, and with regards to hardware fragmentation, if your hardware can’t run an app it doesn’t even show up on the market for you and if you’re online it tells you right there that it’s incompatible. you’re making a big deal of a problem that’s been solved

  5. B says

    Fragmentation isn’t a big deal for 99% of applications.  You just design the app to be resolution independent and run on a slow hardware, and it should run on any Android device.

    Phone companies aren’t stupid and they know that they should develop devices that support the majority of apps out there.  Developers aren’t stupid,  and will design apps that run on the majority of phones.  The problem solves itself.

    Netflix is a special case because the DRM it uses relies on the hardware.  Netflix will work to support as many devices as it can and device manufacturers will want to make their future hardware compatible with Netflix

  6. Roberto says

    Typical Apple fan boy post. Unfortunately a lot of the bloggers on this site have turned into this. I love how all of sudden getting an Android is “following the herd.” As opposed to what? Following the religion of Job$?  Fragmentation? It’s funny, I only ever hear about on tech blogs, and only then from the Apple crowd.  They seem more concerned about fragmentation than any Android user I know. I have have no problem running any app I want on my Droid one, which I have had almost for 2 years, which leads me wonder were this obsolescence talk comes from. I mean Apple updates it’s I-phone every year, correct? Are you also saying every year the I-phone becomes obsolete? You say the only way to get the latest version of Android is buy the Nexus. Okay. They only way to get I-OS is buy an I-phone. What’s the point of this argument? I am surprised you didn’t bring up the “spec’s don’t matter” argument as well, as one of the other bloggers was blathering on about awhile ago. Get over it. They are just phones. Tools. Use what works for you and what you like.

  7. Anonymous says

    It’s one of the main reasons why I could never get comfortable with Android.  The entire ecosystem feels like a mess.

  8. Booger says

    I have a droid 1 also. Netflix runs fine on it. As for fragmentation, explain to me what I am missing out on? I don’t see my droid 1 works great. 

  9. Anonymous says

    It isn’t the typical Joe or Jane customer who cares about fragmentation, which is real, it is the app developers, who can’t support hundreds of devices without delivering a “lowest common denominator” experience, and who are afraid to invest in a rapidly moving and multiplying platform.

    • Rilgon Arcsinh says

      “it is the app developers, who can’t support hundreds of devices without delivering a “lowest common denominator” experience”

      Okay, and?

      Develop the app for what the app needs to function and go with it. If I can’t run an app on my home computer because my PC isn’t powerful enough to run it, I don’t stomp my feet and yell about “FRAGMENTATION!!!!!”, I either forego the use of the app or I upgrade my computer so it can run the app. Same deal with my phone. I’d rather, say, the Plants vs. Zombies port for Android be higher quality and me be unable to play it on my Droid 2 than get half-baked, half-assed garbage like Popcap pushed out.

  10. Anonymous says

    Obviously this guy isn’t tech savvy or he is a troll.  If he isn’t tech savvy, he won’t even understand the differences between 2.2 and 2.3, he’s probably only parroting what his kid brother is yammering on about.  If he were tech savvy he would root CM7 or Infected Rom Synergy and have 2.3 and have everything “just work”.  If he is a troll….?  “Don’t feed the troll!”

  11. Anonymous says

    While fragmentation may be a bit overplayed, I don’t like how developers are forced to code special edition apps for the Tegra2 such as Galaxy on Fire 2 and then release a non THD version months after.

  12. Danny R says

    So when there is a new version of the Android OS, does your phone stop working?

    I wonder if the author would be happy if Google won’t update the Android OS at all so he will always have the latest version.

  13. James Pakele says

    Just two small points… 

    1. Froyo already HAS the features that that iOS and WP7 are still waiting to get.  

    2. Stop innovation so that you feel better about your purchase??? Are you kidding?   New cars come out every year, you’re not obligated to buy them and they still work after years of use…

  14. vinit kumar says

    Totally baised post. Just because you got a dated version of android doesn’t mean that Android is bad and iOS is superior. You are just another iSlave who is so blinded with a corrupted reason. Android can be used with wide variety of devices, that is a plus. When you actually focussing for various price range.
    Next for developers.
    I don’t need a $2500 substandard mac with  a 3GB ram and 1 TB harddrive to develop apps for Android. Any  $400 laptop with  even 1 gb  ram + Ubuntu will serve the purpose really well.

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