Why Android Fragmentation Is A Good Thing - InformationWeek
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8/7/2015
07:36 AM
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Why Android Fragmentation Is A Good Thing

A recent report talks about the "fragmented" Android market. We think "diverse" is a more accurate word to describe the state of affairs. Here's why that's a good thing.

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Google Android operating system is often described as "fragmented." And generally, that's characterized as a problem. It can be problem, but it can also be beneficial.

The word "fragmented" implies an idealized whole that has been broken into pieces. It is pejorative because it suggests that centralization and unification represent the preferred state.

A better term would be "diverse." We do not say humanity is fragmented. We are racially, ethnically, ideologically, physically, and intellectually diverse. That can be a problem for us, but it's also our strength. We are not a monoculture. We should not expect our phones, or the code that runs them, to conform to a single standard.

[ Who's really winning the smartphone game? Read iPhone Vs. Android: Apple's Success Only Goes So Far. ]

Android devices, for better or worse, are diverse. In its recent Android survey, app maker and network data collector OpenSignal reported being able to identify 24,093 distinct Android devices as of August 2015, up from 18,796 Android devices seen last year. Of the 682,000 devices surveyed, the largest portion (37.8%) were made by Samsung.

"Fragmentation is both a strength and weakness of the Android ecosystem, a headache for developers that also provides the basis for Android's global reach," said OpenSignal in its report, without recognizing the bias inherent in the term.

(Image: OpenSignal)

(Image: OpenSignal)

Apple executives have made it a habit to emphasize the downside of Android's diversity. At Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference in June, Craig Federighi said that 83% of active iPhone users are currently running the latest OS. "This is really important because it means not only are they getting the most recent features, but they're also up to date on all the security fixes, and you're able to know as a developer that you can target all the users with the latest and greatest APIs," he said. "And this is a benefit that actually remains really unique to iOS."

The fact that only 18.1% of Android phones presently run Android 5.0 or higher does present issues for Google, its partners, and developers, both in terms of delaying access to new Android features and in terms of security, particularly for Android devices running outdated software with known vulnerabilities.

But the blame for the low adoption rate of Android updates belongs with the Android ecosystem, with handset makers and mobile carriers that prioritize money – by foregoing the cost of update testing and distribution – over customer convenience, satisfaction, and security.

Having tried to deal with the slow pace of updates through the Open Handset Alliance, Google on Wednesday took a step further with the announcement that its Nexus devices will receive regular over-the-air security updates every month, in addition to platform updates. And Samsung has committed to a similar security patch schedule. Diversity doesn't preclude some form of oversight.

At the same time, Apple's centralized approach, for all the real benefits it offers, hasn't conferred immunity from security issues. In June, an iOS vulnerability surfaced. Patched in iOS 8.4, it could have allowed the loading of malicious HTML code in an email accessed through Apple's Mail app. Meanwhile, security firm FireEye is reporting that the "Masque attack" against iOS devices has been detected in the wild. And Patrick Wardle, a security researcher at Synack, recently demonstrated vulnerabilities in OS X at the Black Hat conference.

One of the problems with Apple's monoculture is that a security vulnerability in the latest operating system release has the potential to affect a greater percentage of the user base than it would on Android. Apple has all its eggs in one basket. There's also the petty paternalism of requiring that developers seek approval for app content, rather than simply auditing code for security and privacy issues and accepting that code authors deserve the same speech protection as text authors. But that's another story.

Android developers have to deal with more screen sizes and device variations than iOS developers, but these are manageable challenges, at least compared to the wealth gap between iOS and Android users and Android's longstanding audio latency problem.

In an email, a Google spokesperson said that while the company built Android as an open platform to promote manufacturer differentiation and device innovation, it continues to look for ways to ensure consistency through Google Play Services APIs and Material Design libraries and guidelines.

In May, Google offered a preview of its forthcoming Cloud Test Lab, which will allow developers to automate the testing of their mobile apps on a variety of virtual hardware configurations (as Amazon Device Farm and Amazon App Testing Service do). "It's currently not available publicly, but we expect it to help significantly reduce the challenges of fragmentation on Android devices," Google's spokesperson said.

Google is trying to pick up the pieces and fuse Android's fragments together into a more manageable amalgam. Maybe it will work this time. In the meantime, at least there's no shortage of choices.

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio
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kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Ninja
8/19/2015 | 11:18:42 AM
Re: When did Baghdad Bob start writing for Information Week?
Allowing code writers a bit more freedom in what they write, allows for more diverse apps. By allowing them freedom they can sometimes come up with new ways to do things that are more streamlined, work better, and are a cut about what you could have gotten where the platform was not as diverse.
Broadway0474
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Broadway0474,
User Rank: Ninja
8/14/2015 | 10:19:16 PM
Re: When did Baghdad Bob start writing for Information Week?
Autigers, that's a bit harsh. It seemed to me a well thought-out, albeit opinionated piece. The idea of the benefits of diversity come from nature, by the way. Look at inbreeding. Any community of plants and animals that are subject to it ultimately die out, whether they be European monarchist dynasties or banana plantations. 
autigers1970
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autigers1970,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/8/2015 | 10:53:46 PM
When did Baghdad Bob start writing for Information Week?
Holy frick, what an utter shill.  I don't give a crap about a code writer's freedom of expression when it comes to what's on my device.  Did you read this back to yourself before publishing?  

 
Li Tan
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Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
8/8/2015 | 9:55:57 PM
Re: standard
Exactly - specification does not mean that every vendor will do the identical thing. It just sets up the basic rules for players so that application developers just need to create one Android app instead of mutiple versions. Diversity is always a good thing since it will bring healthy competition to the market.
jries921
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jries921,
User Rank: Ninja
8/8/2015 | 4:07:29 PM
Re: standard
Standards don't require a single vendor, or even a cartel.  There just needs to be a workable specification that anyone with the knowhow and resources can implement (without needing anyone's permission).  And if there end up being competing standards, they'll likely merge at some point, or one will come to predominate while the others decline (VHS vs Beta).

Free markets really do work when they're allowed to.
jries921
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jries921,
User Rank: Ninja
8/8/2015 | 4:00:31 PM
Agreed in full
It has become customary for "pro-business" commentators to praise competition in the abstract and then bemoan "market fragmentation" when it happens in real life (as if oligopoly were the ideal market configuration).  Thus I suggest that those who profess to believe in free markets let the market (ie. the general public) decide how many flavors of Android (or Linux in general, or brands of toothpaste) there should be instead of trying to decide the issue a priori.  They might even be pleasantly surprised to discover that a "fragmented" market works better than a consolidated one.

 
soozyg
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soozyg,
User Rank: Ninja
8/8/2015 | 2:07:54 PM
Re: Not even one benefit stated...
@glenn817 I believe one benefit stated is the diversity--people have more choices with Android and if there is a system issues, it doesn't effect every user.
soozyg
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soozyg,
User Rank: Ninja
8/8/2015 | 2:01:20 PM
standard
We should not expect our phones, or the code that runs them, to conform to a single standard.

Well, we might expect it, but the public is always talking about how they would prefer it. 
glenn817
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glenn817,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/8/2015 | 9:26:14 AM
Not even one benefit stated...
This article didn't make one point supporting the "diversity" of the Android ecosystem (except the dubious claim of greater security through diversity). Android may be a great OS, but this particular "diversity" is not a plus for the OS, developers, security, or its users.
funkyman53
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funkyman53,
User Rank: Apprentice
8/7/2015 | 9:33:55 AM
What???
This article isn't about fragmentation at all. This was about how there are a ton of different kinds of android phones and how that might be good for the OS vs how apple does things

 

Let's get this straigt: Fragmentation is not a good thing. This article has a very misleading title
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