An Android Fragmentation Status Update: Is it Getting Any Better?

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What edition of Android are you running right now? Google hopes that the answer to that question is at least Lollipop but you’re getting ready for Marshmallow 6.0, the latest version of the mobile operating system which launched last month but still not widely available for every Android user yet.

Lollipop on the other hand first launched in November of last year. In that time, it has finally hit a quarter of the market for Android devices. As of November 2, the adoption rate stood at just over 25 percent; this up from 23.5 percent the previous month.

Truthfully, this adoption rate has been slow and less than ideal for Google and it could face a similar fate with the uptake of Marshmallow over the next year. This is largely down to the open nature of Android and the multiple parties involved from smartphone makers to developers. This delay can slow down the roll out of upgrades to as many users as possible.

As a result, we have what is called Android fragmentation, a patchwork of Android devices that all run various versions of the operating system. Historically, the lack of ability to get devices updated in a timely fashion has been a major hurdle for Android.

According to August stats from Open Signal, which compiles a lengthy annual report on Android fragmentation, Android versions like 4.4 KitKat (first released in late 2013) 4.1 remains in high usage at 39.3 percent of the market and Jelly Bean is still pretty popular at 33.6 percent for all its versions, though it is diminishing as time goes on. Furthermore, it stated at the time that Lollipop’s 5.0 and 5.1 versions accounted for 15.5 percent and 2.6 percent respectively.

Open Signal’s figures could be slightly skewed it is a survey of its own users but the survey is still rather expansive, tallying data from 24,093 distinct Android devices, an increase from around 18,000 the year before and 11,000 the year before that.

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This is much different to iOS updates as everything happens in-house with Apple—and the results speak for themselves. iOS 9 launched in September and as of early November, it accounts for an impressive 66 percent of devices running iOS. This puts a great bulk of users on a level playing field, something that Android can’t claim. Apple itself has been keen to point this out in the past, especially when launching a new version of iOS or a new iPhone.

This creates a hurdle for Marshmallow, the very latest version of Android. Again, according to the latest figures we can see, just 0.3 percent of devices are running the new OS (but remember that it’s still very new).

So here’s the big question: Why does this problem exist and why is it unique to Android in the mobile OS industry?

The cause comes down to a few important factors working together. First, there are people with older devices that simply can’t upgrade to one of the latest Android version due to their phones being too old. Second, there are users that haven’t decided to upgrade, perhaps content with the OS they have or even unaware that the update exists. Lastly—and perhaps most importantly—Android depends on third party manufacturers like Samsung, Motorola, and LG to receive the updates from Google and integrate them into the systems they have running on their devices.

Fragmentation doesn’t just come in the form of operating systems though. You also have to consider that Android is running on devices made by several manufacturers. Samsung owns the lion’s share but you have to account for the still high number of devices out there by LG or the likes of Xiaomi.

Then you have the variety of screen sizes for Android, which has a big impact on the user interface for app developers. With such a fragmented user base, this creates even more challenges for developers in creating apps and services that meet the needs of as many users as possible.

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The blame falls partly on the device makers. They are responsible for update testing on their devices to ensure that they’re ready for new upgrades to the operating system. According to SamMobile, a site that covers all things Samsung, the Korean giant began testing upgrades for many of its device in preparation for Marhmallow. As it reports, Samsung is rarely open about what devices will be eligible for the upload, instead we rely on “insider information”. The unconfirmed list naturally includes the latest models like the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy Note 5 as well as the Galaxy S5, which was released in early 2014, but the S4 is off the list. Could these users be left out in the cold?

More manufacturers appear to be lining up on the same wavelength but the fragmentation will continue as long as there are so many manufacturers out there making Android smartphones. The majority of Android users will be opting for your Samsungs, HTCs, and LGs. On the other hand, Chinese players like Huawei and Xiaomi are slowly but surely gaining more and more market share.

Now also consider the swathe of manufacturers that fall under the radar, like Evercross, Karbonn, and Advan. How are these manufacturers keeping up with security and OS updates? They serve much more local and regional markets. For example, Karbonn, an Indian manufacturer, is very much focused on the Indian market.

In the grand scheme of things, this is good for the consumer as they have more options for devices and it fosters even more competition among manufacturers to make the best phones at the best prices but this still contributes to the global fragmentation in the Android ecosystem.

However, depending on who you ask, fragmentation isn’t always a bad thing. The vast array of device makers and operating systems means that Android has a massive reach and can scoop up a lot of users in the process. IDC’s data on smartphone market share illustrates this. It shows that Android has a greater spread than iOS but not everyone is on the same page.

Things may improve though. Open Signal’s research notes that fragmentation is thinning with many pre 4.0 versions beginning to dwindle in users. At the same time, if the user adoption rate of the very latest Android OS doesn’t accelerate in the near future then Google will find itself in this position again where users gather around the median rather than rush towards the shiniest new edition.

Furthermore, Google itself is taking a more proactive approach when it comes to its own Nexus devices. In August, Google announced that it will issue over the air (OTA) updates to Nexus devices every month to address security issues as well as general platform updates. The same month Samsung said it will now be committing to similarly regular security updates too. These changes were spurred by the StageFright Android exploit.

So yes—Android fragmentation is still a real issue that haunts those Android users out there who want updates in a timely fashion. However, part of me still believes that if any company could figure out a way to fix the problem, it’s Google. But right now, your best bet is still to just get a Nexus smartphone—either the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P. For everyone else, we’ll have to wait for the slow and painful rollout of Android Marshmallow to our favorite Android devices.

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