Is Android Fragmentation a Lie?

Is Android Fragmentation a Lie?

Yes. The answer is yes.

With Android’s rise to prominence in the mobile market, one of the big stories we’ve been fed by its shell-shocked competitors is that the platform suffers from fragmentation. But Android’s supposed fragmentation certainly hasn’t translated into any usage or market share problems. Is fragmentation just an excuse, a lie?

Related: It's a Mad, Mad World . . . of Apps

Apple, which is now badly lagging Android, makes its case for Android fragmentation virtually every time the company’s executives appear in public. At its WWDC 2013 keynote last month, Apple CEO Tim Cook said that while over 90 percent of iOS users were on the latest version of that platform, Android was a mess. The biggest body of Android users, 37 percent, are still using Gingerbread (Android 2.3). Thirty-three percent are on the latest version, Jelly Bean (4.1 and 4.2). And 26 percent are using Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0). And that doesn’t include Kindles and Nooks, which further fragment Android, he said.

“More than a third of Android users are using an operating system that was released back in 2010,” Mr. Cook said mockingly. What he didn’t mention is that 100 percent of iOS users are using an OS that looks exactly like the one Apple released back in 2007, though of course the redesigned iOS 7, due later this year, will finally change that somewhat.

The type of fragmentation Cook was pointing out, which I think of as platform version fragmentation, occurs with Android because devices that run on Google’s platform can never be updated in any meaningful way, to a new product version. And as you move up the chain through the various Android versions between 2.3 and 4.x, there are of course additional features that users can enjoy. Currently, most users have to upgrade to a new device to get those new features. And even some devices aren’t necessarily using the very latest Android version. Apple, by contrast, has leverage with wireless carriers and can update its own users more regularly. Which isn’t all that regularly; Apple tends to ship a new iOS version once a year.

The platform version fragmentation “issue” hasn’t affected sales in the slightest. In fact, Android hasn’t just outpaced iOS growth, the distance between the two is growing every quarter. There are now 900 million active devices using the Android OS worldwide, and Google claims over 1.5 million new Android device activations every single day. Android dates back to late 2008. (By comparison, Apple said at WWDC that it had sold over 600 million iOS devices dating back to 2007.)

Platform version fragmentation affects Windows Phone a bit as well. Today, over 60 percent of all Windows Phone handsets in the world are running version 8.0 (75 percent in the US), with the rest running version 7.x.

The truth is that all mobile platforms—indeed all computing platforms, including desktop systems such as Windows and Mac—suffer from some form of fragmentation.

Consider Apple. The firm currently sells three smartphones, the iPhone 5, which is its latest model, plus two older models that it uses to fill out the lineup and provide customers with lower-cost options. But those older phones are ancient by smartphone standards: The iPhone 4S first shipped in October 2011, almost two years ago. And the iPhone 4, arguably Apple’s buggiest-ever hardware release, debuted all the way back in June 2010. Three years ago.

Apple argues that because it can upgrade these phones to the latest iOS version that iOS doesn’t suffer from fragmentation. But with 50 percent of buyers opting for the lower-end and arguably obsolete iPhone 4 and 4S, Apple is indeed introducing another form of fragmentation into its platform, for two reasons. First, iOS 6 isn’t equally full-featured on each device, and some features do require newer hardware. Second, because half of all iPhone sales are of older models, developers must target the hardware specs from two and three years ago or risk losing customers. This creates a very real issue that I think is as serious, if not more so, than Android’s platform version fragmentation.

By comparison, virtually all Android devices sold today are on the latest Android version or close to it. And 100 percent of Windows Phone handsets sold today are running Windows Phone 8. So neither really suffers from this form of fragmentation.

Ultimately, what users care about when it comes to a mobile platform is apps. And both Android and iOS have incredible app counts: 800,000 for Android and over 900,000 for iOS, although as you might imagine, the gap is closing and the app count at Google Play Store should surpass that in Apple’s App Store sometime this year.

Windows Phone Store has about 175,000 apps by comparison. That’s not horrible, and as a user of that platform I can state emphatically that the count, and more important, the quality of the apps is rising in leaps and bounds this year. But Windows Phone Store is never going to catch up to Android or iOS, and the perception that apps matter persists. As it turns out, for good reason.

On Android and iOS, apps do matter, because these executable programs are a full accounting of what the platform can do. Apps are what make Android and iOS special. When Android 2.3 stops being compatible with a wellspring of important Android apps, platform version fragmentation might start to matter. But today it does not.

With Windows Phone, Microsoft has tried to do something different and build integrated experiences into the phone. So although Windows Phone might have fewer apps, it does a lot more out of the box. This capability was well-intentioned and it works as advertised. But this integration message continues to be lost on users. Because they want apps.

Android fragmentation doesn’t matter because the apps still work. This is the mobile platform version of the trains still running, and although Apple is right to point out anything that makes iOS look better than Android, fragmentation just isn’t an important differentiator. Android’s success proves this.

When it comes to these mobile platforms, we care about what they can do. Both Android and iOS are viable and useful almost solely because of apps. Windows Phone is viable and useful despite its apparent lack of apps. But so far, users are overwhelmingly choosing Android over the alternatives, and the gap keeps growing.

Fragmentation is a lie.

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