Once upon a time, Android — Google’s open-source mobile operating system — was new. Google introduced the platform as an open resource, available for use by any device manufacturer, and in time a variety of Android phone makers adopted the operating system and made their own decisions about software and hardware, building their own versions of the Android experience and laying the groundwork for the development of the massive variety of Android phones on the market today.
In those early stages, a problem called “fragmentation,” the spread of divergent versions of the Android operating system, was born. As Google tells it, the growth of the operating system sounds a little like a fairy tale:
“Android is the operating system that powers over 1 billion smartphones and tablets. Since these devices make our lives so sweet, each Android version is named after a dessert: Cupcake, Donut, Eclair, Froyo, Gingerbread, Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich, and Jelly Bean.”
But let’s start at the beginning.
In November 2007, five months after the launch of the original iPhone, Sergey Brin and Steve Horowitz unveiled Android as “a new open-source operating system and software platform” for mobile phones. (There they are, in the video above.) The launch came two years after Google acquired Android. A lot has changed since then, and Android is no exception, with early versions of the operating system and the hardware it was demoed on virtually unrecognizable for users of contemporary versions of Android.
If you’re looking for a complete history of the iterations that Android has gone through since then, we recommend a 40,000 word article on the topic by Ars Technica’s Ron Amadeo. Amadeo charted the operating system’s progress from Android 0.5 to Android 4.4.
Amadeo’s piece, impressive and exhaustive in both scope and detail, is an illustration of the improvements added in each new Android release and the incremental progress that’s made Android the operating system it is today. But we digress: from its beginning, Google has slowly shaped Android to improve and change via a continual march of updates and version releases. But its updates actually aren’t that slow compared to the development cycles of other major operating systems.
Unlike Microsoft, which traditionally updates its desktop operating system once every three to five years, or even Apple, which updates the iOS and OS X mobile and desktop operating systems yearly, Google rolls out new updates and improvements for Android on a cycle of mere months. At the beginning of Android’s history, new versions were released every two and a half months, and now the development cycle is closer to six months.
Among other things, the continual releases of new Android versions means that the earliest versions of Android don’t work anymore. Since Android could be considered the first cloud-based operating system, each version of Android from the beginning depends on Google’s servers to function. Since few people now use the oldest versions of Android, the corresponding servers are shut down — and the apps don’t work without cloud support. But here’s the problem: just because the earliest versions of Android don’t work doesn’t mean that people have stopped using a variety of later (but still not very recent) versions of the operating system.
Here’s where some visualizations by OpenSignal, a company that provides wireless network mapping via data crowdsourced from its mobile signal, can help illustrate what’s going on. In a report on what developers have long complained of as the “fragmentation” of Android — the huge distribution of Android phone users who aren’t using the latest version of the operating system — OpenSignal illustrated the problem with a comparison of Android to Apple’s iOS.
The two pie charts are the easiest way to wrap your head around Android’s fragmentation problem. While 91 percent of users of Apple’s smartphones (all models of the iPhone) are using the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS 7, only 20.9 percent of Android users are running the latest version of Google’s operating system on their phones. Why is the Android market so, well, fragmented?
It has a lot to do with how Android is a free, open-source mobile operating system. Unlike iOS, which is available only to people who buy one of Apple’s high-end iPhones, Android is used by practically countless device manufacturers around the world. It’s used on high-end phones, low-end phones, phones sold in mature markets, and phones that are sold in countries where Internet access is rare. Fragmentation occurs because across that huge variety of Android devices, there are actually thousands upon thousands of different Android phones available around the world, and the availability of cheap Android phones, which rarely run the most recent version of the operating system, has seen Android adoption take off globally.
Rather contrary to what you might think, this fragmentation was actually helpful to Google as it pushed Android to grow from a relatively unknown open-source project into the mobile operating system that most of the world uses today. OpenSignal notes that, “Fragmentation benefits Android much more than it hurts it. Android is now the dominant mobile operating system and this is because of fragmentation, not in spite of it.”
While the statement that fragmentation helps Android more than it hurts Android is up for debate, now that Android has become widely adopted, it’s impossible to deny that fragmentation is what made Android so huge. As OpenSignal explains, though, that doesn’t stop fragmentation from posing daunting challenges — both to developers, who try to create apps that large numbers of people will download and use, but also Google, which is trying to retain some measure of control of Android and see a return on its investment in the open-source platform:
“Fragmentation is both a strength and weakness of the Android ecosystem, a headache for developers that also provides the basis for Android’s global reach. Android devices come in all shapes and sizes, with vastly different performance levels and screen sizes. Furthermore, there are many different versions of Android that are concurrently active at any one time, adding another level of fragmentation.”
Google attempted to solve the problem of fragmentation with the 2012 introduction of Google Play Services, which was pushed out to every active Android phone running Android 2.2 or newer. Google Play Services fills in the space between apps and the Android operating system, and enables Google to update and replace components or add APIs without a new version of the entire operating system, or going through the device manufacturer’s updates.
That enables older versions of the operating system to access newer versions of the Play Store or other (Google) apps. Short of getting all users to update to the latest version of Android — which, if it wasn’t obvious already, takes a very, very long time — Google can quickly and automatically distribute new Android APIs to make devices compatible with newer apps and features that would otherwise be incompatible with the hardware that people are using.
But that didn’t help developers, and unsurprisingly, Google Play Services also didn’t cut down on the actual fragmentation of the operating system. Carriers and device manufacturers still weren’t and aren’t obligated to update their devices to the latest version of Android. That leaves many users of cheaper hardware and older operating system versions without the core features and security that Google has built into later versions of Android. Among cheaper devices, it’s rare to find a phone that runs the latest version of Android.
At the same time, Android’s fragmentation has quickly grown thanks to steep increases in the number of different Android devices available. OpenSignal found that 18,796 different Android devices accounted for 682,000 downloads of its app worldwide. That’s up from 11,868 distinct Android devices in 2013, and 3,997 devices in 2012. Device fragmentation has more than quadrupled.
Here’s the vast array of Android devices that have recently downloaded the OpenSignal app. Is “mind-blowing” an appropriate term here? The daunting variety of devices still poses a huge challenge to Android developers, whose apps are available to users of more than 18,000 distinct devices. It’s generally only feasible for developers to test an app on a few devices, but OpenSignal notes that while the top 10 most popular devices represented 21 percent of all devices last year, they represent only 15 percent this year. That means that those top 10 devices are less and less representative of the wider variety of Android phones.
While familiar names account for a large percentage of the market — with Samsung’s offerings accounting for 12 of the 13 most popular devices and the company capturing 43 percent of the market — the distribution of Android device manufacturers is also largely fragmented. The open nature of the Android platform means that anyone can use it, and anyone can build a device to their own market’s unique specifications, which leads to an array of manufacturers creating phones conceived for specific markets.
But even more interestingly than the breakdown of Android devices by manufacturer is the clear correlation between a country’s GDP and the level of fragmentation in its Android market. Countries with a lower per-capita GDP show a much higher level of Android fragmentation than countries with higher per-capita GDPs.
To map the correlation, OpenSignal plotted countries’ GDP per capita against the market share of the top five Android APIs: four versions of Android KitKat and 4.3.1 Jelly Bean. A higher score on the Y-axis (which measures the market share of those top five Android APIs) is equivalent to less fragmentation. The cluster of light blue dots at the lower left corner of the chart represents an assortment of Sub-Saharan African countries, where cheaper devices run older versions of Android. The correlation between GDP and fragmentation is obvious. (In case you were wondering, the outlying dot all the way to the right is Qatar, where an extremely high GDP per capita doesn’t reflect the condition of the general population.)
OpenSignal also plotted fragmentation as divided between countries where the GDP per capita is under $20,000 and over $20,000. The red and dark green bars represent the latest versions of the Android operating system, while lighter greens and other colors represent older versions. About 35 percent of devices in more economically developed countries run on Android Kitkat, while only about 12 percent of Android devices run on Kitkat in less economically developed countries. The chart makes it easy to see that versions of the operating system dominate in poorer countries.
But Google is already looking to tackle the problem of Android fragmentation, and as it turns out, it’s already come up with a solution: the Android One initiative to develop standards for low-end Android devices. The standards will make it easier for manufacturers to quickly develop and produce affordable devices for emerging markets, and will even out the fragmentation by making sure that even cheap Android phones can run updated versions of Android. That ensures users a more uniform experience, and developers a more even landscape. Google framed the Android One program as its strategy to reach “the next billion” users worldwide. Google’s first partners under the initiative are launching phones that will cost less than $100 in India.
That’s important not only for developers — who would like a better handle on what needs to go into apps created for emerging markets — but also for Google itself. Android isn’t trying to be iOS, Google isn’t trying to be Apple, and that’s okay. It’s also why Google’s Sundar Pichai likened Android to a “cantankerous democracy,” referring to the different ways that Apple and Google run its businesses, and also the complexity of the Android world that faces developers.
Wide varieties of devices, with different screen sizes and processing capabilities, contrast with the neat iOS ecosystem, and fragmentation is a big part of what makes Android different from iOS. Android stands to become a little more like iOS in that it can be more uniform and more universally updated if the hardware it runs on can support the latest version of Google’s services.
While expanding smartphone access is unarguably a good thing, Google also stands to benefit by decreasing the fragmentation in the market for affordable smartphones. Improving the devices and their ability to run recent versions of the Android operating system will also make them more able to take advantage of the web-based apps that are a serious business for Google, and Android One will also give Google more control over what manufacturers modify in their own deployments of Android. Since Android One phones will run the stock version of the operating system, the program will prevent participating device makers from replacing Google services with their own versions — like Samsung and Xiaomi have done in the past.
But it’s worth noting that as Google attempts to unify the fragmented Android ecosystem, that fragmentation is seen as an advantage by many consumers who can pretty easily find an Android device to fit their preferences whether they want a large or small screen, a low or high price, or any of an endless array of features, software, and sensors. The overwhelming diversity of Android devices available will likely continue to work to Google’s advantage in the short term, even as the company looks to unify the Android world (just a little) to maintain some control over a growing number of users’ experience with the operating system.