Android Fragmentation: You Can’t Discuss a Problem if One of the Parties Denies It Exists

I keep expressing concern over the fact that companies that make and sell Android -based phones have trouble keeping up with the pace of Google’s OS updates. I’ve been known to describe the situation–different phones running different versions of Android–as “fragmentation.” Apparently, I’m either confused or cynical. Maybe both!

Over at the Android Developers Blog, Android Open Source & Compatibility Program Manager Dan Morrill is saying that “Android fragmentation” is nothing but meaningless fearmongering on the part of drama-queen pundits.

The thing is, nobody ever defined “fragmentation” — or rather, everybody has a different definition. Some people use it to mean too many mobile operating systems; others to refer to optional APIs causing inconsistent platform implementations; still others use it to refer to “locked down” devices, or even to the existence of multiple versions of the software at the same time. I’ve even seen it used to refer to the existence of different UI skins. Most of these definitions don’t even have any impact on whether apps can run!

Because it means everything, it actually means nothing, so the term is useless. Stories on “fragmentation” are dramatic and they drive traffic to pundits’ blogs, but they have little to do with reality. “Fragmentation” is a bogeyman, a red herring, a story you tell to frighten junior developers. Yawn.

Android fragmentation is apparently a hoax. So Morrill drops the topic and segues into an (interesting) discussion of how the Android team squashes bugs and resolves compatibility issues.

Would it help if I stopped calling it fragmentation? Done. Let’s call it old versionitis. Or behindism. Or software catchup syndrome. Or anything else you like. But it’s not nutso melodrama to note that it’s very common for current Android phones to run versions of the OS that lack the latest features and aren’t compatible with noteworthy new apps. AT&T is currently advertising up a storm for the Backflip–an Android 1.5 phone which can’t run Google’s own Goggles and Earth apps; Sprint is about to release the EVO 4G, a phone that runs an older version of Android than the aging Nexus One.

Those aren’t catastrophes. But they’re also not non-issues, and it’s not impertinent for bloggers to bring them up.

It’s possible to make the case that short-term fragmentation deployment of multiple versions of Android is a worthwhile tradeoff to get Android as good as it can be as quickly as possible. Google presumably believes this to be the case, since that’s the strategy it’s pursuing. I’d love to see the company explain its thinking. But first it needs to get its head around the idea that there’s an issue here worth explaining.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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