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As Android market share grows 7% gain quarter over quarter, developers are increasingly concerned with OS fragmentation. 57% of developers polled in a small but statistically significant survey agreed with the statement  that Android fragmentation is “a meaningful or significant problem.”

If you carry a Motorola handset like me, we use the MotoBlur UI. Or if on HTC, you use the Sense UI. These UIs are different from the UI on Google’s Nexus phones, the out-of-the-box Android. There are modifications to most programs, even the core apps like Mail.

The inconsistent UI is one challenge for developers – and for Google. Many users receive OS updates months after Google releases a new version of Android. The Motorola and HTC developers have to modify the new OS with their UI and this takes time.

Google has responded to this challenge by requiring all partners modifying the user interface submit these changes for approval. Ultimately, having the same version of Android across devices is a massive consumer benefit and one that Apple iOS users take for granted.

Today, 40% of users are behind on Android release cycles and are using versions older than 2.2. As a result, these users’ experience is sub-optimal. In these early stages of OS development core features change very quickly. Honeycomb’s beautiful new UI make take 3 to 6 months before reaching the masses.

By consolidating the OS fragmentation and serving users better, developers benefit with greater distribution, consistent game experiences across the largest smart phone user base, and ultimately the best monetization – so goes the theory. Handset makers and carriers suffer because of their inability to differentiate handsets from competitors.

On the other side of the competitive arena, Apple has controlled the user experience tightly since the inception of iOS. And the developer and consumer ecosystem has flourished. Android is replicating some of these behaviors.

In the short-term, Android fragmentation is a concern for our portfolio companies with mobile applications. But bearing this burden is well worth it. The long-term gains of being early on Android’s market place and building a vibrant user base are undervalued. It’s great to see Google taking some bold steps to ensure Android’s ultimate success.

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4 thoughts on “Android’s fragmentation challenge

  1. Android’s fragmentation is certainly a large issue for developers. While software development has clearly helped Android rise to be the #1 smartphone in the U.S., I wonder what damage limiting UI changes will have on the Android market.

    For example, allowing handset makers to openly modify the UI ought to lead to more innovation and a long term better product. Plus the ability of handsets makers to compete/differentiate on software as well as hardware (potentially the margin on software is higher than the margin on hardware e.g. Microsoft Windows v. Compaq, Gateway, etc.) should keep them heavily invested in the Android operating system. Also any changes which create large scale incompatibility with applications in the Android (or Amazon) Market will likely detract from users demand for the product. Thus in theory handset makers ought to be working on the problem of fragmentation on their own (although they may be otherwise motivated by a desire to sell another device to the consumer in a year or two).

    Perhaps the best solution is one where handset makers are free to make any changes they want, but also must present the consumer with a choice of a “vanilla” Google experience at a recovery boot? This should let the user switch to an easily upgradeable Google UI if/when the handset maker fails to make the device compatible with market applications and/or stops supporting the device with updates.

  2. I like your suggestion quite a bit. Making a vanilla option might be the best way to preserve carrier and OEM differentiation with consumer experience.

    Which would be the default setting?

  3. What we have found is that most problems actually come from the added layers manufacturers add or the layers they sometimes remove.

    Developing a game for the Nexus 1 has never been an issue even with OS upgrades but developing for the HTC Wildfire for example is a nightmare. I would argue that the biggest differenciation a manufacturer could bring to the market would be to stop creating added softwares that people do not want or need. If they really care about the OS, they can contribute to the Open Source Android projet and make submissions.

    Manufacturers would then be able to focus on major hardware issues such as the battery life ( also partially an OS pb)

    By stopping OS work, they would eventually get Google love, Developer love and above all consumer money who will recognize their brand as the most reliable Android brand

  4. Etienne, that’s good to hear. I hope some of Google’s efforts stem these developer problems and the OEMs figure out other ways to differentiate like partnering with mobile app developers to distribute great apps.

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