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Android fragmentation: Can Google tighten things up?

By this point, most Android fans have got used to the idea of OS fragmentation, but last Friday over in the US saw a particularly blatant example pop up, namely the HTC Thunderbolt. Verizon pushed out an update for this two-year-old US-variant of the HTC Desire HD, finally upgrading it from Android 2.3 Gingerbread. Here’s the embarrassing part: The upgrade brings the phone to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, which is still two versions behind the current one and more than 15 months old.

A certain vocal segment of Android fans usually jumps down my throat whenever I write about Android fragmentation, saying that no one cares, and that I must be on Apple’s payroll, since I’m obviously coming up with bogus reasons why Android isn’t “The Anointed OS For One And All.”

This never made sense to me. Hopefully we can put that sentiment to rest, given how well Android is doing, not to mention my own cheerleading for the platform. By this point, Android is far and away the number one smartphone OS in the world, with a market share (70 per cent) that dwarfs iOS (22 per cent). It also has more than 700,000 apps in Google Play, compared with 800,000 in Apple’s App Store. And if you’ve been paying attention, Android apps have taken a marked jump in quality over the past several months, as more and more developers pay attention to the platform instead of relegating it to second-tier status.

The problem continues

Granted, not every Android owner cares all that much about OS updates, but it’s certainly the case that some do, and they get really frustrated when they can’t upgrade their phones.

Plus, Android fragmentation is still in the news. Many mid-tier app developers are clinging to iOS because of fragmentation concerns, while others question the need for more Android apps in the first place, or even cease Android development entirely.

A recent development brings good news, though. As ExtremeTech reported a few weeks ago, a new clause in the latest Android SDK’s terms of service (TOS) reads as follows:

3.4 You agree that you will not take any actions that may cause or result in the fragmentation of Android, including but not limited to distributing, participating in the creation of, or promoting in any way a software development kit derived from the SDK.

In other words, companies that fork the theoretically open source Android OS are no longer allowed to do so. This doesn’t mean that phone manufacturers can’t overlay changes in the user interface or add their own apps, incidentally. It means that they can’t do so in a way that’s so embedded in the OS that you have to wait for the manufacturer to release its own versions of Android, rather than just installing the latest Google Android OS revision when it appears.

Google’s last attempt to stave off Android fragmentation was a total failure. The Google Android Update Alliance, announced at Google I/O 2011, was supposed to be a consortium of all the big phone manufacturers agreeing to support handsets with the latest versions of Android, in a timely matter, for at least 18 months after its initial release. Everyone stood on stage, made the promise in front of a cheering audience, and then proceeded to completely ignore it in the months ahead. Whether anyone will actually pay attention to this latest TOS clause remains to be seen.

The stakes are high

What does this mean for end users? Android fragmentation is bad for several reasons. It makes QA’ing third-party apps and getting them to be reliable much more difficult than it is on other mobile OS platforms. It means all of the latest features Google adds to its OS are forever inaccessible to users if they have a phone that the manufacturer or network decides isn’t important enough to update. And it’s self-reinforcing, because carriers and manufacturers would rather hold the OS updates and instead push you into buying yet another phone before you would have otherwise.

All of the reasons you usually hear from carriers and manufacturers – that they need to qualify each handset for their network all over again as if it were a brand new device, that they’re still evaluating demand, that developers are still working on it even though it’s already out on other phones – are all BS, since the iPhone doesn’t have any of these problems.

Personally, I have no particular qualms with HTC Sense, Samsung’s TouchWiz, and the look and feel of the various other manufacturers’ UI overlays for Android. I prefer some over others, and I certainly don’t like it when the UI additions slow down the handset’s responsiveness. But if overall performance is good on a given handset, UI layers are fine with me, and they let manufacturers distinguish their Android devices with more than just specs.

However, when they are so embedded in the OS that you can’t just update to the latest version whenever you want to – which is currently the case on all Android phones aside from unlocked Nexus 4s and Galaxy Nexus handsets – that’s where fragmentation rears its ugly head (kernel?).

Soon, we’ll begin to see if Google’s latest TOS changes pay off. Here’s hoping they do.