Android fragmentation surges, but is that a bad thing?

App developer Open Signal has spotted 11,868 distinct Android devices over the last few months. While this kind of diversity may be a pain for developers, it surely gives users a lot of choice.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
3 min read
Brand fragmentation in the Android market is immense, but Samsung still leads the charge with 47.5 percent of the market share. Open Signal

The fragmentation of the Android market is both a strength and a weakness for users and developers, according to a new report by Open Signal.

On the one hand, it can be difficult to find and make apps that function across the entire Android ecosystem, while on the other hand there are literally thousands of options to choose from. Not only is the Android ecosystem fragmented by operating system -- such as Jelly Bean, Ice Cream Sandwich, and Gingerbread -- it's also chock full of different devices made by dozens of brands.

"For consumers, extreme fragmentation means that they can get exactly the phone they want -- big or small, cheap or expensive, with any number of different feature combinations," Open Signal writes.

Open Signal makes an Android app that crowdsources where the strongest and weakest cell signals are. Along the way, it's also managed to amass a ton of data about what kind of Android devices are out there. The company says that it has seen 11,868 distinct devices download its app over the last few months. For comparison, it only saw 3,997 last year.

"From a developer's perspective, comparing fragmentation from this year to the previous year, we see that it has tripled, with even more obscure devices from around the world downloading the app," the report reads.

While there are many lesser-known brands hitting the scene, Samsung is still leading the charge with 47.5 percent of the market share -- most notably with its Galaxy line of smartphones. In a distant second place is Sony-Ericsson with 6.5 percent of the market share.

While device fragmentation is exploding, Android is better known for its OS fragmentation. It's taken quite some time for Google's latest OS Jelly Bean to finally topple the older and uber-popular Gingerbread. In fact, according to a Google report from earlier this month, the first time that Jelly Bean pulled ahead gaining 37.9 percent adoption was just a couple of weeks ago. For comparison, 95 percent of iOS users are on Apple's latest operating system.

Android and iOS fragmentation comparison. Open Signal
Google has been working to reduce OS fragmentation by both pushing Jelly Bean and supplying developers with code that lets older software take advantage of newer OS features. However, one of the reasons Google develops Android and gives it away free is to accelerate use of the mobile Internet. And, in doing that, Google chooses to encourage diversity and spur the growth of device and brand fragmentation.

"While fragmentation certainly poses a headache to developers who have to test and optimize on an ever-increasing number of devices, the success of the Android ecosystem cannot be separated from its fragmented, free-for-all, nature," the report reads. "What is clear from this report is that Android fragmentation, of all varieties, is increasing. Too often this is treated as a problem with Android, rather than a strength, but we feel that this misses the bigger picture. While there are certainly problems associated with fragmentation (and as developers we know them all too well), it is wrong to suggest that it is only a downside."