black phone with rainbow colored ribbon flowing out of it

Can Windows Phone avoid Android-style fragmentation?

With Google’s Android platform fighting the fragmentation blues (more below), Microsoft is aiming to get its Windows Phone 7.5 updates out as seamlessly as possible, noting in a blog post Thursday it is now delivering the update to “100 percent of eligible phones…regardless of carrier.”

Now of course in that qualifier lies the rub. Certain older devices may not have the specs to support the new release, and not all carriers around the world will be ready at the same time. Microsoft has been maintaining a “Where’s My Phone Update” page to let users know when to expect updates, with qualifiers such as “scheduling” or “testing.” That list is also designed to subtly push complaints off its shoulders and onto carrier partners – ie, ‘it’s not our fault, we’ve pushed to everyone that is ready.’

The latest phones to see the update include LG Optimus 7 phones on Telefonica in Spain with Samsung Omnia 7 phones on Deutsche Telekom soon to follow, according to Eric Hautala, Microsoft’s general manager, customer experience engineering, in the blog post.

Not all is happy in Mango-land however. Commenters on the blog post were less than thrilled that the Samsung Focus 1.4, in particular, had yet to get the update following earlier promises. Said one:

Do you remember when MS said they were taking a different route and forcing phone manufacturers to meet their specs instead of designing the OS to meet the specs of the phone manufacturers? By allowing Samsung to not only release a device that did not meet their specs and then allow them to continue to sell it after the fact, they're opening itself up to any other phone manufacturer to do the same thing. And we will be the ones who suffer.

Microsoft’s efforts (struggles?) to drive updates and limit fragmentation is certainly echoed on other platforms, notably Android. A compelling piece of eye candy has been making the rounds this week, courtesy of blog TheUnderstatement, providing a state of fragmentation on Android (see chart below).

The blog sums up the Android state-of-the-update situation as such:

  • 7 of the 18 Android phones never ran a current version of the OS.
  • 12 of 18 only ran a current version of the OS for a matter of weeks or less.
  • 10 of 18 were at least two major versions behind well within their two year contract period.
  • 11 of 18 stopped getting any support updates less than a year after release.
  • 13 of 18 stopped getting any support updates before they even stopped selling the device or very shortly thereafter.
  • 15 of 18 don’t run Gingerbread, which shipped in December 2010.
  • In a few weeks, when Ice Cream Sandwich comes out, every device on here will be another major version behind.
  • At least 16 of 18 will almost certainly never get Ice Cream Sandwich.

The problem for Android end users, and developers, has been the rapid revving of the Android OS, tied with the desire for manufacturers and carriers to sell off their existing inventory, often at cut rate prices. Customers like cheap phones and most simply don’t have any idea what Ice Cream Sandwich is, let alone the hardware required to support it or its release schedule.

The question then, is: will those customers care about an update that they didn’t know about in the first place? It probably depends on the user, and the features getting pushed out the door. If Google can coalesce its devices –both smartphone and tablet—around its Ice Cream sandwich release, those fragmentation problems may at last start to alleviate.

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