Recently, Google’s Eric Schmidt spoke to the masses gathered at CES. The discussion revolved around a term that has plagued the Android community for a long time. That word, of course, is fragmentation. Chances are you’ve heard that term before, but if you’re like most and have only had one or two Android devices, you probably have not felt the disconnect between the various pieces of hardware you have had the pleasure (or heartache depending on the device) trying out.
Unfortunately, for Android users both now and those that will make the switch, this is a potentially big issue. At the time of the drafting of this article, we are in the midst of several iterations of the OS that are actively supported and are being developed concurrently by various facets of the community. Aside from the phone OSs that have made their mark and left, we are still left with Android 2.3, 3.0, and now, 4.0 (Gingerbread, Honeycomb, and Ice Cream Sandwich respectively).
Now, anyone that has spent any amount of time on any of the OSes in active development will know, the experience across the three iterations that were mentioned are hugely different. In fact, as most of you may or may not know, app compatibility is an issue that has yet to be ironed out. This becomes a bigger problem when there are still those that are on previous versions of the OS on older hardware. This problem becomes amplified once more when we take into account hardware that has been locked into a forked iteration of the OS like the Kindle Fire.
Now, we aren’t fans of Apple by any means. One of the biggest drawbacks of being an Apple iOS user is, in our humble opinion, iTunes. While many have lauded the efforts of Apple to tie everyone and everything into the iTunes ecosystem, it’s just not a great experience. Stories of people accidentally “syncing” empty libraries to their phones are not rare and while we won’t go into the experience into much detail, we will say that performance issues, file format compatibility, and inflexibility have all been cornerstones in the Apple experience. However, there is one thing that they have done well, that’s keeping their OS unified across several significant hardware changes in their product line.
So where do we go from here? That’s an interesting question. Given enough time and some stability in terms of OS development, this is the type of problem that could potentially solve itself. As the world upgrades to the newest iteration of Android (Ice Cream Sandwich), phasing out older flavors of the OS will come as naturally as sunrise and sunset. However, to expect that all the Android versions will be rolled up into one is an expectation that is unreasonable. By the same token, that is not really a process that is needed for Android to succeed in the future.
In our opinion, the fragmentation of the Android platform, while it is a problem, is not a problem that will bring the community to its knees or one that will hinder Android in the future. If that were the case, Android would not be the most popular mobile platform. Those that say otherwise ignore empirical evidence. However, it is true that Google needs to make a concerted effort to mitigate the barriers that prevent cross-hardware compatibility especially when considering the Android Market of applications. Ice Cream Sandwich is indeed a step in the right direction. The OS is extremely polished and makes iOS look and feel elementary, much like a Fisher Price toy. We’ll just have to see if Google has more surprises in store for us as we move further and further away from Android 1.0 and add to the long list of dessert monikers we have come to know and love.