The rallying cry of Android doubters since the platform began taking off has been “fragmentation.” We were told Android was too fragmented to succeed, but here we are with it as the top mobile operating system in the world. A new set of platform distribution numbers from Google seems to indicate that fragmentation is less of a concern than ever, showing nearly half of Android devices running Jelly Bean. Google appears to have gotten fragmentation under control, but more importantly, does it even matter?
Google releases new platform distribution numbers every month to give app developers an idea which versions of Android they should support. The numbers this month show Jelly Bean gaining several points, resting at 43.1%. Ice Cream Sandwich is at 21.7% and Gingerbread is at 30.7%. Android 2.2 Froyo still has a sliver of the platform, but everything older has dropped off the chart. This is a step in the right direction, but the numbers are more complicated than they may first appear.
As far as the code name goes, Jelly Bean is the newest version of Android, but it actually encompasses three different OS versions over the course of a year. There were fairly minor changes between 4.1, 4.2, and 4.3. However, there are still differences in app support and functionality. For example, 4.2 added quick settings and lock screen widgets. Android 4.3 included TRIM support, OpenGL ES3.0, and Bluetooth Low-Energy. So even within the monolithic Jelly Bean segment, there is fragmentation.
It is curious that 2.3 Gingerbread phones outnumber 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) devices. Gingerbread came out in late 2010, and ICS a year later in 2011. The cause for this is simple — prepaid phones. Users that buy cheap off-contract devices from prepaid service providers are still getting Gingerbread much of the time, and there’s virtually no hope of an update. These super-cheap devices will always lag behind the cutting edge by a year or two, and there is very little Google can do about that.
Even this more unified Android platform has what could be unsolvable fragmentation issues. We may never see Android coalesce around just one or two version numbers — the market is simply too diverse for that. Instead, Google has been moving services out of the core OS over the last several update cycles. Mountain View can now bring new features to the overwhelming majority of Android devices via the Google Play Services framework. Version number fragmentation isn’t the problem it once was.
When you look at the features that have been pulled out of the core OS, it’s really all the stuff you care about. Google Play Services includes all the components for account syncing, malware scanning, Google Play Games, and a lot more. The Play Store itself contains many of the apps that used to only be updated with the system like Search/Google Now, Hangouts, and the keyboard. The operating system itself is basically still home to the system UI, lock screen, APIs, the kernel, and drivers.
The result is that Google can bring many new features to Android without waiting on OEMs and carriers to push updates. For example, just last month it added the ability for users to track and wipe a lost phone via the Android Device Manager. This came to all Android devices, and no system update was needed.
Android is still technically fragmented, and will probably always be fragmented. Google has, however, taken steps to ameliorate the effects of fragmentation on users. We may be headed for a future where it simply doesn’t matter what version number your phone is running. Instead, it will matter what it can do.
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