What Google is Doing to Solve the Android Fragmentation Problem

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Here’s the situation: You just got a brand new Android smartphone and you’re super excited about it. You’re getting used to your new device, downloading all the apps you want, and changing all your settings to your liking. Then you find out that a brand new version of Android just came out that has a huge visual makeover, lots of new features, and blazing fast performance. You look at the screenshots online and obsessively think about how much better your life could be if only you could update to this new operating system.

The problem? Your new phone isn’t a Nexus device, so it isn’t getting the update—at least not any time soon. This is what people call the Android fragmentation problem and it’s been well-documented over the lifetime of the mobile operating system. Due to the OEMs that put skins over Android and have to port every update into their own proprietary systems.

One device from 2014 that I have loved to use as my daily driver is the Moto X. It’s well-designed, has a beautiful display, and runs software that is as close to stock Android as you’ll find outside Nexus devices. I was excited about the promise of the clean interface and even potentially receiving quick updates thanks to Motorola’s close partnership with Google.

In fact, the Moto X was one of the first smartphones outside of the Nexus line to have supposedly been receiving the update to Android 5.0 Lollipop. I was excited to hear this and eagerly anticipated the notification to pop up and tell me that my device was ready for an update. Unfortunately, it never came. Due to delays and a very slow rollout process, over three months later my Moto X is still running Android 4.4.

The biggest issue with this that after my time using Android 5.0 Lollipop on Nexus products, I’m convinced that it’s the very best mobile software out there. It’s fast, beautiful, intuitive, customizable, and non-intrusive. But when you go out and pick up the newest Android device from Samsung, HTC, or LG, you’re getting outdated software, without any real assurance that you’ll get an update coming your way any time soon.

New statistics have shown that even fewer people have made the jump to Android 5.0 in its first couple of months than to 4.4 last year. Of course, both numbers pale in comparison to the 50 percent of iOS users who are using iOS 8. In other words, Android 5.0 might be better than iOS 8, but what does it matter if no one is using it?

Google has tried a number of ways to get around the problem, starting with the Nexus devices themselves. Each year Google releases another new Nexus smartphone and tablet with the newest software on it, but rarely does it make much of a splash. The truth is that Samsung, LG, and Motorola are the companies that are selling Android devices, not Google. The Nexus devices are still there and still serve a function as a unit for developers to get their hands on the new software, but they aren’t exactly an answer to the fragmentation problem.

Next, Google worked with manufacturers to release what it called “Google Play” editions of popular smartphones. In 2014, we saw Google Play editions of the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One (M8), which ran completely stock Android. Again, while the option to buy these was nice, the phones were expensive and really hard to get ahold of. These Google Play smartphones ended up being more just alternatives to the Nexus 5 than anything else.

However, the biggest practical thing Google has done to make any serious headway on solving the problem is a bit more discreet. One of the best things about Android is that through installing custom launchers, you can pretty much make your device’s home screen look however you want it to. That’s why in 2013, Google launched the Google Now launcher in the Play store—a way of putting the Google Now screen just swipe away from your homescreen at all times. The feature was originally put in 4.4 KitKat in 2013, and now you could get it on pretty much any Android device you had.

But it wasn’t just the Google Now launcher that all Android users now had access to. The launcher also added in all the subtle tweaks that the developers at Google made to how the home screen feels, such as the bigger icons, smooth animations, and a generally more refined look.

The jump to Lollipop has been one of the biggest changes to how Android looks and feels since the platform first launched. We’ve written in detail about the update and all the things we love in it. However, the biggest thing Google has done to really hit home the update to Lollipop is bring all of its apps up to date as well. Docs, Drive, Gmail, Chrome, Google Play store, Sheets, and Google Now all have this new look and feel, implementing all the design ideas that come with Lollipop.

With access to these apps and the recently updated Google Now launcher, you can have something very close to the stock Lollipop experience on any Android device. I recently took the new Samsung Galaxy S Tab 10.4, a device that comes muddled and clogged up in Samsung’s Magazine UX launcher and custom interfaces, and reduced it down to something that is amazingly close to a stock Android Lollipop experience. And my Moto X? It’s even closer.

Google is using its apps and custom launchers to take back Android for itself. You still won’t have access to some of the under-the-hood software changes or things like the redesigned settings or app switcher, but if you live in Google’s ecosystem of apps, you can more or less get the Lollipop experience on any old Android device that you have. With that, Google has gotten one step closer to solving one of the biggest problem Android has always had. I’m still waiting for my Moto X to get the official update, but for now, it’s actually not so bad.