Android’s rise to the top of the mobile operating system food chain as measured by device proliferation has been remarkably swift, but not without its drawbacks. Due to the nature of Google’s open source OS and its aggressive strategy, smartphone vendors that make use of the platform have each gone their own way with software development, hardware design and other key elements. As a result, Android fragmentation, which might be defined as the spread of diverging versions of the Android OS across devices with varying core characteristics, was born.
Whether or not fragmentation is a problem in the Android ecosystem is a topic that is intensely debated by enthusiasts. Some claim the problem will eventually lead to Android’s downfall while others deny the issue even exists. Outside of these heated debates, a number of individuals and firms have tried to analyze the matter and look at fragmentation’s potential impact on the bigger picture.
In October last year, developer Michael DeGusta created a visualization of what he called Android’s fragmented update history. “Ever since the iPhone turned every smartphone into a blank slate, the value of a phone is largely derived from the software it can run and how well the phone can run it,” DeGusta wrote. “When you’re making a 2 year commitment to a device, it’d be nice to have some way to tell if the software was going to be remotely current in a year or, heck, even a month.”
Following DeGusta’s report, graphic designer Chris Sauve took data from a number of sources earlier this year in an attempt to measure fragmentation and in doing so, he determined that despite its unveiling in 2010, 2012 will be the year of Gingerbread. So far, there is no denying that he is right — Gingerbread currently resides on more than 64% of Android devices globally according to Google’s own Android distribution data.
Now, OpenSignalMaps has thrown its hat into the ring. Using data from 681,900 devices that downloaded the firm’s software over the past six months, OpenSignalMaps found there to be 3,997 distinct Android devices running its app, though the figure counts each custom ROM found to be running on various smartphones as a separate device.
The developer found a staggering array of Android version and display resolution combinations, and said the issue is likely to get worse. “[Android version] and screen fragmentation is probably going to get worse,” the firm wrote in its report. “Android has, however, shown committment [sic] to make it easier to target multiple screen sizes – by introducing the (perhaps ironically named) fragments APIs in 2011 which makes it easier to turn view elements into modules.”
But despite the current trend, OpenSignalMaps concluded that the benefits of building apps for Android far outweigh the drawbacks. “One of the joys of developing for Android is you have no idea who’ll end up using your app,” the firm noted. “With many devices under $100 unsubsidized, Android phones and tablets are able to reach a market that can’t afford netbooks. For the majority of the world’s population smartphones (and not computers) will be the must-have devices.”