Google's Fragmentation Heartburn Continues
David is a member of The Motley Fool Blog Network -- entries represent the personal opinion of the blogger and are not formally edited.
Fragmentation has been an issue since Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) launched their open source smartphone operating system in 2007. People mean various things when they accuse the Android ecosystem of being fragmented. The first of which is that the number of hardware partners Google has for Android is numerous. There are 84 official hardware and software partners in Google’s open handset alliance. With all of these hardware manufacturers making various devices in various forms at various price points worldwide, there is a huge range of Android devices.
Some call this hardware variation fragmentation; some see it as one of the best selling points of the Android platform: consumer choice. However, all of these manufacturers, or most of them, put their own skins or proprietary applications on top of the stock Android operating system. HTC has Sense UI, Samsung has TouchWiz, Motorola has Moto Blur, and so on. Manufacturers may also strike deals with software vendors to pre-package their applications onto Android smartphones. This practice is a common occurrence on Windows based laptops and desktops where the prepackaged software is known as Bloatware.
These custom skins and applications, along with any modifications the hardware maker may have made to the Android operating system for custom hardware (such as some WiMax smartphones on Sprint), have the side effect of slowing the update cycle. The result of this customization and quick release cycle is that some hardware companies don’t want to spend the R&D time and money pushing a free update to an old phone. They probably already have a new or soon to be launched flagship device. This results in something more than just a wide variety of hardware devices being on the market. It results in software fragmentation, which is not a good thing and cannot be explained as consumer choice.
Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) at their World Wide Developer conference in June touted that their current mobile operating system iOS 5 is running on more than 80% of iOS devices. The comparable Android operating system, Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich was at the time only running on 7% of Android devices. Ice Cream Sandwich has now climbed to 11% of all Android devices, but ICS has also just been replaced by a newer version of Android, Jelly Bean. When Apple announced iOS 6, the replacement to iOS 5, they promised it would be coming to all iOS devices going back through the iPad 2 and iPhone 3GS. Though not every new feature will be available on these older devices, the iphone 3GS was launched in 2009 and keeping it mostly up to date three years later is impressive.
Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) is also facing some fragmentation within their Windows Phone ecosystem. When Microsoft announced Windows Phone 8 at their Windows Phone summit in June they announced that no current Windows Phone would get the upgrade. Current Windows Phone devices will get an upgrade to Windows Phone 7.8 which will include some of the aesthetic features from Windows Phone 8, but nothing more. This is a pretty major blow to Nokia, the main maker of current Windows Phones especially because they have already been losing ground to Android and the iPhone. It also draws a line in the sand for Windows Phone users with regard to upgrading, through no fault of their own, or Nokia’s, or the carriers, there is now fragmentation in the Windows Phone ecosystem.
Google is trying to combat their fragmentation issue. In 2011 at Google’s annual developer conference, Google I/O, they announced their Update Alliance. This promised that all Android devices released by members of the alliance would “get OS updates in a reasonable amount of time within the first 18 months.” This has not come to pass; most of the major hardware makers and carriers have fallen flat on this promise. Android 2.2 Froyo released in early 2010 is still outpacing Ice Cream Sandwich with 17% market share. Gingerbread Android 2.3 released at the end of 2010 dominates Android devices with 64% of all Android devices. Android 4, Ice Cream Sandwich is the third most popular strain of Android with only 10.9% percent of all Android devices, and Ice Cream Sandwich was just replaced with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. With one million new Android devices being activated every day, these numbers will swing toward Ice Cream Sandwich. However, with 400 million Android devices in existence it is clear that the majority of Android devices are not getting updated properly.
This year at I/O, Google took another stab at fixing their fragmentation issue; this year it came in the form of the new Android Platform Development Kit. This kit will be released to major partners two to three months before the public release of each new version of Android. This will give these partners a jump start on readying updates for their devices, both those devices that are already out and those currently in the pipeline. Google hopes that this development kit combined with their update alliance will finally be enough to put the issue of fragmentation to bed.
Apple is the king of keeping their devices up to date, Microsoft has created their own fragmentation within Windows Phone with Windows Phone 8, and Android remains the most fragmented. Apple will continue to be good at keeping their devices updated for at least two years after release, and Microsoft’s fragmentation is largely a one time issue, because they changed the core of Windows Phone. This allows Windows Phone 8 to share a common core with Windows 8 but means that current devices cannot be upgraded (current Windows Phones are also lacking hardware features, like dual core processors). However, Android remains seriously fragmented and, as Google rolls out a new version when their current version is barely on 10% of devices, they need to keep up with their update initiatives.
Fool blogger David Danna does not own shares in any of the compnies mentioned in this entry. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Nokia. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.If you have questions about this post or the Fool’s blog network, click here for information.