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AH Primetime: Is Fragmentation The Achilles Heal Of Android?

March 19, 2015 - Written By Stephen Sard

As Android owners and enthusiasts, we have all at one time or another had this experience. We decided to purchase a new Android device and set about going to work researching to find the device that suits our needs, and then set about acquiring said device. We take it home, set it up and go off into the world happy as a clam. Everything is new and shiny and happy. After several months of Android bliss, we read an article that announces the latest version of Android. We think to ourselves that our device is brand new, so our update should be just around the corner. Six months later, we are still waiting. The manufacturer of our device has said in many reports that they are going to push the new update as fast as possible, they just have to wait for the carriers, or they want to make sure everything is just right. And then the day comes, our phone lights up as our shiny new operating system begins to download. Excited, we let our phone sit and do its thing. In the meantime we check out the internet and discover that just today Google announces their next operating system, and that Nexus owners all over the world are reporting how happy they are to be receiving their brand spanking new Android operating system with all the latest bells and whistles. This is the life of a typical Android owner, and it stinks.

Why does this scenario play out for millions around the world? Why are so many customers not on the latest Android version? Most of it has to do with the fundamental nature of Android as an open, customizable, and versatile operating system. The very thing we love about Android, is the one thing that keeps it fragmented. It is one of the greatest catch 22’s of the tech world. Manufacturers of phones try to make their phones stand out by not only offering various hardware gimmicks, but with their custom user experience as well. Companies such as Samsung, HTC, LG, Motorola and the like all want to put their own little mark on Android in an effort to bring their customer a better experience. So when Google releases a new system, the manufacturer has to go about making changes so that the new operating system meshes with their user experience. Unlike the vanilla experience on Nexus devices, manufacturers use these different user experiences to engage and – they hope – make the customer want to buy their product over the others.

Another issue is the fact that manufacturers such as Samsung, have many devices in their arsenal. They have to make their changes to each of these devices individually. This is why some phones receive updates while others do not. The manufacturers simply do not have the resources to dedicate to a device that only serves a few customers. You could also argue that manufacturers may hold off on updates in an effort to get customers to switch to the latest device that they offer. While it does not outwardly seem to be the case, as most manufacturers do make updates for older devices, it could be another reason updates are slow to be pushed out.

Then there are the carriers. Companies, such as Verizon here in America, all have to add in their own applications, bloatware, and other features. This further slows down the process. In some cases, carriers have specific variances or a custom made version of a device that further slows down the update process as manufacturers may have to make additional changes to meet the needs of that specific device. Carriers also control the data line that is used by over the air updates. This means that manufacturers have to coordinate efforts with the carriers to ensure that the updates make it to their customers. This too, takes time.

So why does Google seem to be able to push out updates quickly to their Nexus devices? The answer to this can be narrowed down to a few reasons. First, Google uses its own devices for the process. So when they make a new operating system, they are using the Nexus devices as the test bed for quality control etc. So when they are ready to release the operating system, it is already tested, tweaked and ready to go on their branded devices. The second reason is because the Nexus line of devices directly from Google, as well as Google Play editions of certain other devices, run on a vanilla Android UI. There are no other changes that need to be made, so it is easier to push out the updates for the device. A third reason is because the Nexus products do not contain all the bloatware that other phones have. This means that carriers do not add time to the update process in order to install and make sure the devices on their network have their branded applications.

With so many hands in the cookie jar, it is any wonder that customers are able to get a functioning update at all. Google has tried to make this process quicker, but most of their efforts have done little to solve the problem. There is no one single entity to blame for this whole process, every player involved has contributed to the problem of Android fragmentation. In order for the issue to be solved, everyone is going to have to come together to work out a solution that benefits the customer of these products. Some people have jumped ship and moved to Apple, where updates are controlled by Cupertino and carriers simply act as a data provider. With the new ecosystem that Microsoft is planning, where updates will happen infrequently and across all devices, there are now actual threats to Android. It is important for Google, the manufacturers, and the carriers to work out the kinks in the system or else they could end up losing business to other operating systems. If anything, it is important to the customer, who paid for a device that they expected would be updated in a proper fashion so that their devices run smooth, secure, and with all the bells and whistles to make their life easier.