Android fragmentation gets measured; 2012 is the year of Gingerbread

Fragmentation is a recurring issue that haunts the Android ecosystem in many ways. While Google’s latest version of the Android platform was intended in large part to address the issue — which many believe to have peaked when the software giant launched Android 3.0 Honeycomb and maintained two entirely separate versions of Android for smartphones and tablets — Ice Cream Sandwich has not yet done its job. Four-and-a-half months since its debut, only 1% of Android devices currently run the unified Android 4.0 operating system according to Google’s own data. To compound matters, a recent report suggested Google may launch Android 5.0 Jelly Bean as soon as this summer. There is no question that fragmentation is a real issue for the Android platform, but is it really as big a deal as some make it out to be?

Fragmentation is an issue on two fronts. On one hand, developers have problems with Android fragmentation because it forces them to create and maintain different versions of the same application to work across various Android releases. This issue has theoretically been addressed by Ice Cream Sandwich, and developers will be able to build one app that works on both smartphones and tablets moving forward. Today, however, the problem remains. In fact, vendors are still launching new smartphones running Gingerbread at this year’s Mobile World Congress trade show.

One the second front, fragmentation is an issue that directly affects users. As we have seen time and time again, updating smartphones to new Android releases is a tall task that often takes vendors many months of hard work. In the meantime, users are left waiting for the great new features, security fixes and other enhancements Google introduces with each new release.

While we have established that the problem is real, the question of its severity remains a topic that is debated quite often. In an effort to make sense of the noise, industrial and graphic designer Chris Sauve compiled data from a number of sources and created a formula by which Android fragmentation can be measured.

The above graph, which Sauve included in a post on his pxldot blog earlier this week, displays Android version distribution between December 2009 and February 2012. This graph showcases the issue quite clearly — despite two new versions having been released since Android 2.3 was first introduced, Gingerbread’s installed base is currently at an all-time high.

The more interesting graph, however, might be this one:

Simply looking at Android installed base figures over time is not an accurate way to measure how “bad” fragmentation is, Sauve argued. Instead, a model that measures the distribution of one Android version against others is needed. Sauve did this using two key factors.

“The more handsets on the most recent version, and the less divided the remaining installed base (aside from those on the most recent version), the better,” Sauve wrote on pixldot. “Using these two factors I built a formula that provides us with a value of how ‘bad’ Android fragmentation is; it can theoretically go from 0–12.5, with higher numbers indicating ‘worse’ fragmentation.”

As can be seen in the graph above, Android fragmentation is not necessarily a problem that has grown worse over time as many have claimed. Using Sauve’s model, it actually appears to be a cyclical issue that was at its lowest level ever just two months ago in December, after Ice Cream Sandwich had been released.

Sauve goes on to take a deeper look at the issue of Android fragmentation, and he reaches some interesting conclusions. Among them an observation that may come as a surprise: despite the recent release of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and the upcoming launch of Android 5.0 Jelly Bean, Sauve believes 2012 will be “the year of Gingerbread” in terms of version distribution. “Gingerbread appears to be on the verge of peaking as a percentage of the total devices in use, but it took Froyo over 6 months after reaching the peak of its relative distribution to be overtaken,” he noted. “Gingerbread is still adding devices 14 times faster than ICS.”

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