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Android fragmentation has advantages that Apple wants to copy, says report

Android fragmentation is on the rise, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, according to a new report.

Of the last 682,000 unique devices to download the OpenSignal cellular coverage app, the organisation logged 11,868 distinct Android devices - up from 3,997 last year.

"From a developer's perspective, comparing fragmentation from this year to the previous year, we see that it has tripled, with even more obscure devices from around the world downloading the app," OpenSignal said in a report.

OpenSignal put together colour-coded charts that break down Android fragmentation by device and manufacturer. Not surprisingly, Samsung is the most popular manufacturer of Android devices, with about half the devices. LG, Google's Nexus lineup, and Motorola make a dent in the remaining 50 per cent, but Samsung's dominance is striking.

The same is true when broken down by device, too, with the Galaxy S3 the most popular gadget, alongside the Galaxy S2 and Galaxy Note 2.

But despite the huge number of Android versions, OpenSignal was not overly concerned that fragmentation would significantly hurt the Android OS.

"The availability of cheap Android phones (rarely running the most recent version) means that they have a much greater global reach than iOS, so app developers have a wider audience to build for," the group said. "It may be tricky to do, but the potential reward definitely makes it worthwhile. For consumers, extreme fragmentation means that they can get exactly the phone they want – big or small, cheap or expensive, with any number of different feature combinations."

OpenSignal acknowledged that fragmentation can cause headaches for developers, as well as phone makers creating cheap handsets that might not be able to handle more powerful versions of Android. But not everyone will need the most updated version of the mobile OS, the group argued.

"What is relevant for one region may not be to another, and developers need to take into account differences in network performance and reliability when designing their apps - as well as the level of Wi-Fi access for apps which are particularly data heavy," OpenSignal said. "Another relevant factor is battery life; while one day's battery life may be acceptable in the developed world, it may well not cut it in developing markets. It is important to remember that the criteria against which app performance is judged can change by region, not simply by device."

Apple has criticised Android fragmentation with version pie charts on its own site that show that most iOS users are on iOS 6+. OpenSignal, however, argued that iOS might be taking a more Android approach.

"Apple are currently working on a lower-end device, increasing the fragmentation of their ecosystem in the process, suggesting that the Android ecosystem is not only doing something right, but doing something to be imitated," the report said.

OpenSignal limited its report to 682,000 devices for consistency, because that's how many it examined in last year's report.

Google, meanwhile, recently released the latest version of its OS - Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, which made its debut on the Nexus 7 tablet. The next major upgrade to Android - codenamed Key Lime Pie - is not expected until autumn.

The OpenSignal app is available in Google Play and the App Store.