Will Android Fragmentation Bother Consumers?

Google has been criticised for fragmenting Android, but is it that really such a big deal for the average consumer, asks Clint Boulton

Google’s gross Android fragmentation is the stuff of legend among developers by now.

Here’s a quick rundown: The company has pumped out Cupcake, Donut, Eclair, Froyo and Gingerbread for smartphones, forked the platform with Honeycomb 3.0-3.2 earlier this year to make a tablet-friendly OS, only to merge the two branches with the new “Ice Cream Sandwich” platform.

Michael DeGusta offers a great visualisation graphic, spanning every build release and every Android smartphone launched in the US before July 2010 to help us grasp the complexities of this fragmentation. Oh, and the iPhone is the backdrop:

First, thank God it’s in a bar chart. Can you imagine a family tree for this? Messy. DeGusta does a good job getting the slop under thumb.

Here are some main takeaways:

  • seven of the 18 Android phones never ran a current version of the OS.
  • 12 of 18 only ran a current version of the OS for a matter of weeks or less.
  • 10 of 18 were at least two major versions behind well within their two year contract period.
  • 11 of 18 stopped getting any support updates less than a year after release.
  • 13 of 18 stopped getting any support updates before they even stopped selling the device or very shortly thereafter.
  • 15 of 18 don’t run Gingerbread, which shipped in December 2010.
  • In a few weeks, when Ice Cream Sandwich comes out, every device on here will be another major version behind.
  • At least 16 of 18 will almost certainly never get Ice Cream Sandwich.

Do consumers really care?

As a Motorola Droid X owner for a full year now, I can honestly say that not one of those issues he cited above applied to me, or if it did, I didn’t notice.

I got the Gingerbread bump this past summer, but to be honest, Froyo wasn’t terrible. It’s what was available when the X launched in July 2010.

How deep does a consumer need to go with a gripe? Let me explain, I just checked my X and saw I’m running Android 2.3.3, That sure is Gingerbread, but it’s not the freshest Gingerbread, which – I know from the Galaxy S II and other new phones I’ve tested – is actually Android 2.3.5.

But I haven’t noticed the difference. And if I don’t know what I’m missing, why is Average Joe Consumer going to care? So, from a consumer standpoint, unless you bought one of the earliest Android gadgets, the upgrade cycle shouldn’t be a problem.

And while it would be nice if my Droid X gets Ice Cream Sandwich, no big deal if it doesn’t. I plan on upgrading this summer when US operator Verizon Wireless lets me do so.

I can’t speak to the developer side of it, which DeGusta convinced me is constraining to applications builders, but as a consumer, I can honestly say the whole Android upgrade cycle hasn’t bothered me a lick.

Most of his post is a why iPhone-is-better-than-Android rant, but it’s helpful to see the spaghetti tangle Google created with Android.