My View on Android Fragmentation

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We have all seen this image, and I agree with the android fans that it is biased.  I do think that this is a good representation of the underlying problem at hand.  For semi informed consumers, what is he/she to do, seeing this infographic?  Obviously, buy an iphone, but what if you want an android model.

TL;DR answer: Buy only an official google release nexus phone.

Much (Very detailed) Longer Answer:

The idea behind the android is that android will be a free operating system, where anyone can do anything they want with it.  Have a device, well go ahead and put Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) on it.

To differentiate their products, each manufacturer (to the behest of the customer) decided to overlay functionality.  Motorola has MOTOblur, Samsung has TouchWiz, and HTC has Sense UI.  The collective opinion is that they are all terrible.  HTC Sense UI is the best, but to delay updates because of it, makes it terrible.  Manufacturers want to sell their “extra special” functionality, but didn’t realize that customers want the updated OS more than a windshield wiper graphic telling you it is raining.    To send out updates is expensive (see below), so manufactures have to make sure the current software update is rock solid (read: huge delays).  Remember nobody issued feature updates (OS revisions), including apple, until users demanded apps for their phone.  Since then, all OSes have to iterate to stay relevant.

This idea of software updates became apparent when Motorola teamed up with google to bring the original Droid.  Two months later Google released the Nexus one.  Both phones came with Eclair (2.1).  That functionality caused people to start asking when their phone will have this (great) functionality.  Fast forward five months with the HTC incredible, HTC EVO 4g, Motorola Droid X, and Motorola Droid 2 came out.  All those phones had Eclair, but Froyo was already released.  All the phones were updated a few months later, but they should have come with the new operating system on it.  Here is where it gets ugly.

All the manufacturers had older mid range phones, Motorola backflip and LG ally to name a couple, that flat out said, “Sorry, go get new phones.”  But the most aggregious insult came from Samsung.  In November (read: Froyo has been updated on the phones mentioned above and released for 11 months prior with the original Droid), Samsung released the Fascinate, their flagship phone with Eclair.  They issued statements that said Froyo will be released any day now.  US Cellular issued the release in January, but Verizon customers were left in the cold.  In April it all came to a head.  Samsung released the Galaxy S, and refused to issue an update to their now 6 month old Fascinate.  It was a slap in the face to people who were told they would be updated.  This article explains the problem the best  Android Police.  Basically, OS updates are features (not security), and the carriers are charged the fee.

It was apparent that manufacturers were trying to get people to upgrade their phones, rather than provide a full experience and create brand loyalty.   Consumers started realizing that they had to do extra research to match up carriers and manufacturers that offered upgrades.  Here are some details about the froyo upgrade:

Gingerbread changed these numbers, but not much.  Motorola was the first to roll out updates, to more devices.  Again, it was entirely up to the manufacturers to see if they cared enough about specific devices.  The reason Gingerbread is at 50% installation, which is not enough penetration for a free update, is because people are buying newer phones with the current OS already on it.  (As of this writing, Gingerbread is now outdated).

The other problem comes in the form of locking the bootloaders.  Rooting the phone to allow tethering apps that scares the carriers, so they make the open source software essentially closed.  If you can’t add a custom ROM, then the customer should be entitled to timely updates.  Even as Motorola and HTC said they would unlock the bootloaders, both new flaghship phones have locked bootloaders.  Welcome to another headache that android people have to deal with.

You can’t remove the overlay skin, and you can’t unlock the bootloader, what is the real benefit.  Why would a person subject themselves to this?  An iphone costs the same, easier to use, and gets the updates.

The Solution:
Google every year picks a partner and creates the model all phones should follow for the next year.  Google controls every aspect of the phone, from design, to specifications, and even carriers.  Google makes sure that all updates are immediately passed on to these phones.  Instead of waiting and hoping for an update, one should only look at the Nexus line of phones.

Apple releases one phone a year.  It controls the updates, and every phone that is able to get it, gets it.  They keep phones current long enough to make sure that an entire contract cycle is supported, if not longer.

The initial chart presented first is biased only because it is comparing only selected phones.  Where is the Nexus S?  A majority of the phones chosen were not flagship phones.  A majority were midrange phones that were never going to be updated.  That is not an excuse, but compare flagship phones to flagship phones.

From now on, I will only compare the official google released developer phone to the iphone.  The other phones I will consider a specific use/need case.

What happens if I want choice?
What happens if someone wants a keyboard, or touchwiz, or some other feature that [insert carrier] or [insert manufacturer] has?  Google currently marks the phone “with google” for phones that they bless to have the current.  I took the graph, and checked to see which of these phones were “with google.”  The following 9 phones had the logo.  The newest phone is the HTC Evo 4G that is now almost 17 months old.  It has seen 3 major OSes (Eclair, Froyo, Gingerbread).
HTC MyTouch 3G
HTC Hero
Samsung Moment
Motorola Droid
HTC Droid Eris
Droid Incredible
HTC MyTouch 3G Slide
HTC Evo 4G

The following 8 phones are not “with google.”  I would not have recommended any of these phones.  It isn’t surprising that these phones wouldn’t be updated.  It isn’t surprising either that these phones came a revision back.
Motorola Cliq
Samsung Behold II
Motorola Devour
Motorola Backflip
Motorola Cliq XT
LG Ally
Garmin Garminfone
HTC Aria

My solution to phone choice is to have google only certify two or three phones per manufacturer per year.  A flagship phone, a midrange phone, and a teen feature phone.  All three phones must have the 18 month update commitment that was discussed at google I/O.  This will limit phones to only a few phones a year. There is absolutely no need to release a new phone every month.

Samsung is sort of on board.  They realized that they needed a naming convention, so they came up with one.  It also makes sense.  It simplifies but doesn’t solve the problem.

As you can see they came up with five different monikers.  I have a feeling that only three of these types of phones will see a “with google.”  Without saying anything, they have said that only their S and possibly R models will probably see updates.

Motorola is  a completely different story.  Who knows what will happen with google buying Motorola.  I’m hoping Google takes my suggestion, and limits the number of phones that are uselessly released.

The other manufacturers, I hope follow the lead.

Remember over the course of the phone and contract, the actual cost of the phone becomes irrelevant. With a $2500 total, 2 year cost of ownership, the cost of the phone isn’t your biggest problem.  Spend the extra money to guarantee yourself the best phone for the longest time.

Conclusion:  Get an official google phone, the galaxy nexus, or at least a phone that says “with google.”  At least do your research.  If you do those things, there are no issues with fragmentation.

From now on I will never compare a non official google phone.




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  1. […] My View on Android Fragmentation | […]

  2. […] of time into the research.  It isn’t just another tech blog.  Then read my subsequent response.  Remember that computers double in processing power every 18 months, and items lose 10% of value […]

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