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10 misconceptions about Android fragmentation

The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona just closed it’s doors, and while there weren’t any big surprises, we got to see quite a large number of new Android devices. Looking into the technical specs of those phones makes one of the biggest problems Android currently faces obvious: fragmentation. A variety of devices sporting Android 2.2 to 3.0 has been presented. Android 3.0 is the first version intended for tablets, but this didn’t stop companies like i.e. HTC to announce their HTC Flyer tablet with Android 2.3. And you have phones which will be released with Android 2.2. It’s still quite a mess, and i don’t believe that it will become better anytime soon.

Not even a year ago Google released the Nexus One, which was promoted as the definitive Android ‘superphone’. The main purpose was to push the envelope and make other hardware manufacturers follow that example. This worked out to a certain degree, because we could witness a lot of great Android smartphones following the Nexus One.

One of the reasons why many customers bought an Nexus One over other smartphones was the Android update support, because there was no custom UI and no carrier involved which could have played a role in delaying any new Android version rollout. The Nexus One was the only true Google phone on the market, and it was available directly from Google. Sadly it wasn’t the big seller it deserved to be, so the Nexus One was taken out of the market quite soon and officially named the new Android developer phone a few months after the release. I think in order to understand the Android fragmentation dilemma, the Nexus One is a great example.

Everybody is currently waiting for the official Android 2.3 Gingerbread update, and while Google presented the Nexus S in the meantime with the newest Android version, Nexus One owners are still kept in the dark about an OTA update.
The real issue is not about Gingerbread though, because the new features and slight UI changes are not anything to write home about. The problem is that the Nexus One is not even one year old, and we can already witness that it’s not a priority for Google anymore. This is a disappointment for anybody who was expecting good customer support for the first real Google phone.

When reading all those discussions on message boards and blogs, it’s obvious that there are basically two sides in this controversy: those people who feel that Google should support it’s first ‘Superphone’ without any delays or priority loss over the Nexus S for at least another year, and the other group of people which say that Google never promised anything and the customer is not entitled to updates after purchasing a working product.

I believe that Google took quite some effort make customers expect nothing less than great support for the Nexus One. The same way Android has always been promoted with the ‘open source’ tag, the Nexus One was promoted as an unlocked smartphone which would benefit from being directly sold by Google. I strongly believe that Google should keep their customers satisfied, and therefore should use the Nexus One as an example of great customer support. In order to make clear what my view of the whole Android situation is, let’s go through some of the most popular misconceptions when it comes to discussing the Android fragmentation issue:

1. There is no Android fragmentation, look at the latest statistics!

The latest official Android statistics show that a majority of devices runs on Android 2.x. This sounds great on the first sight, but the numbers don’t indicate how many Android devices got updated.

Android Fragmentation Chart

It’s a given that Android 2.x devices dominate the statistic, because all new smartphones come with at least version 2.1 of the OS. So Androids strong sales figures of the past and this year are the main influence for the shift to 2.x phones in the official statistic. There are still many phones stuck with old Android versions, and a lot of them will never see any update.

2. You can always root your device and flash a Gingerbread custom ROM!

Not everybody which bought an Nexus One had the urge to play around with custom ROMs. The Nexus One was never promoted as an developer only device during it’s release. The USP was to get one definitive Android device which will receive frequent and quick Android updates, directly pushed out by Google. So while you could have flashed a Gingerbread ROM months ago, this is not what most customers expected when buying an Google Nexus One instead of another Android smartphone. The Nexus One was NOT introduced as a developer phone, but as a mass market phone. And i don’t need to mention that the mass market is not interested in rooting, bootloaders, custom ROMs or anything else in that matter. On the contrary, the average user wants a good service level and an easy to use yet powerful and flexible smartphone.

3. Google never promised anything!

Google never said that the Nexus One will get updates for the next 5 years. But since the Google phone was positioned as the new generation of ‘Superphones’ and the only real Google phone, there was no other interpretation than expecting good support for more than one year. Especially since the biggest Android competitor Apple has a good track record of supporting their iPhones with OS updates for 2 years on average.
In the beginning everything looked good, as the Nexus One got two updates with FroYo (Android 2.2) being a major update. But after Android 2.2.1 everything stalled, and when the Nexus S was announced with Android 2.3 i was hoping to see the OTA update on my Nexus One within some days/weeks. But sadly this didn’t happen, and now we are talking about more than one month of waiting. Back then Google made an announcement, claiming that the update will roll out ‘in the coming weeks’. So after about 6 weeks, we are still not there yet. So while Google didn’t promise anything, they can’t really afford to treat their customers worse than the competition. Any customer paying 500+ dollars won’t be happy to see their device potentially being obsolete after less than one year. Let me just make clear that i’m not claiming that Google has already abandoned the Nexus One, because i’m still convinced to see a few more updates. But it doesn’t have the priority it should have. The Nexus S already got three minor Gingerbread updates/bugfixes up to now.

4. No other phone got Gingerbread yet!

Besides the Nexus S there is no other device on the market which sports Android 2.3. But this will change shortly as the new wave of Android phones hit the market. It’s not clear if the Nexus One will get the update prior to any other phone, but i certainly hope that Google understands what kind of signal this will send to the customer if an Android device from another company gets Gingerbread before Googles own phone.

5. The Nexus One hardware is old and thus obsolete

This is something i have seen repeatedly. People claiming that new smartphones are basically obsolete after 6 months. While it’s true that you will most certainly find a smartphone with stronger hardware specs 6 months after you buy any device, it doesn’t mean that all other phones are not capable of new OS versions anymore. Take a look at the Nexus S. Hardware wise it is only a minor update compared to the Nexus One, and even Google stated that there are no specific hardware requirements for Android 2.3.

6. You can’t compare the Android update situation with the iPhone!

Nobody can tell a customer what he is allowed to compare. The average user doesn’t care if it’s technically fair or not to compare the support level of Apple’s iPhone with an Android device. What matters is how much the customer has to pay, and what he will get for that. So if getting an Android device means that you MIGHT get one or two updates if you are lucky, while paying a few more dollars and opting for an iPhone will most certaily give you two years of OS updates, you might think twice.

7. Android was made for geeks/nerds. Average users don’t deserve an Android phone!

That’s no joke. During many discussions on the XDA Developers message boards, i have read that more than once. Even though this has no relation to the fragmentation topic. How can a paying customer NOT deserve a product? Why do some people think that it’s a privilege to own an Android phone? The belief to be some kind of mobile phone elite is one of the Android communitys problems. While i can fully understand that developers are proud of their work, there are many regular Android phone users thinking that everybody which isn’t interested in custom ROMs and hacking doesn’t ‘deserve’ an Android phone. I don’t want to destroy your world view, but Google is not primarily interested in custom ROM development. They want to get the mass market with all of it’s average non-tech-savvy potential customers. All community development is nice and interesting, but Google’s main priority is not to make custom ROM cooks happy.

8. Stop complaining and just get an iPhone.

That’s not the point. If anybody really thinks that the iPhone is clearly better in all areas, then he probably already bought an iPhone by now. But there are people which want Androids problems to be adressed, because they don’t want to switch to another mobile OS.

iphone 4

I don’t want to give up the perfect Google services support, and i don’t want to lose the ingenious notification system Android has. Many people claim that HP’s WebOS notification can keep up, but i had a Palm Pre as a testdevice and i can say that nothing comes near to the shader concept of Android. These are just two examples, so when discussing the whole fragmentation topic it doesn’t make sense to reply by suggesting to get an iPhone.

9. Google adressed this issue with separating Google apps from the main OS sources.

That’s a good start, at least more people will get Android app updates. But OS performance improvements like we could see on the Android 2.2 FroYo release cannot be rolled out like this.

10. Android is Open Source!

Yes, Android is open source. This is one of the favourite things an Android fan will throw at you, no matter what the discussion topic is. But which direct benefit does the customer really have based on that? You don’t need open source to have different form factors, or 3rd party skins, as Windows Mobile proved for all those past years. And even though Windows Mobile was close source, the whole custom ROM thing really lifted of with Microsofts old mobile OS. Also people tend to forget that while Android is open source, all Google apps are close source. And Google will charge a smartphone manufacturer for those apps. Generally it’s a nice thing to have an open source mobile OS which can potentially be used for free and be developed independently without any compensation for Google. But in the end the open source nature is not something which the customer will directly benefit from. At this point it’s more of a marketing gag than anything else.

Conclusion

I think that it’s in the best interest of Google to place their Nexus brand as definitive Android smartphone examples, not only hardware wise but also when it comes to supporting the device with new Android versions. This is the only way how Google can create some pressure on other Android phone manufacturers to go the same route. Take a look at companies like Sonyericsson which really claim that their custom UI with Android 1.6 is better than Android 2.1 anyway, and therefore there is no need to provide an update for the Xperia. On the other side you have companies which announce updates, but delay them again and again. Not too much time ago no average user cared about apps, but Apple changed the game with their app store. The whole world is going crazy after apps now, not even realizing that 3rd party applications have been available since Symbian and Windows Mobile days. I can see the same thing happening with OS updates, although not on the same scale. People will realize that iPhones maybe 100$ more expensive than the newest Android smartphone, but at the same time you will get better update support for a longer period of time. Microsoft seems to have a good OS update strategy too, by providing OTA updates centralized and not allowing 3rd party skins.
So at this point nobody knows how long Google will support the Nexus One, but i certainly hope that it will be comparable to their biggest competitor just to prove that Android doesn’t have to mean generally bad update support. We are talking about expensive high-end smartphones, and Google will hopefully get their act together to meet the expectations of the customers. This article may seem quite negative overall, but i still prefer Android as an mobile OS to all other current offerings, and i give Google the benefit of the doubt. The fate of the Nexus One will be the decision point for me, whether to take a serious look into the competitions offerings for my next smartphone purchase or not.