Does Google care about Android fragmentation?

Users and developers complain about Android, but what is Google doing to alleviate their fears?

Scott Webster
Scott Webster has spent the better part of his adult life playing with cell phones and gadgets. When not looking for the latest Android news and rumors, he relaxes with his wife and son. Scott also is the senior editor for AndroidGuys. E-mail Scott.
Scott Webster
4 min read

Fragmentation remains one of the touchiest subjects for Google Android users and developers, with various official builds and different screen sizes all playing part in determining which apps your phone can handle.

Currently, four versions of the OS are available: 1.5, 1.6, 2.0, and 2.1. Though the typical consumer and new Android owner may not know there are multiple iterations powering these phones, it's enough to drive the tech-savvy enthusiast mad.

Sure, we all love choice in our devices--that's what drew us to Android to begin with--but it gets frustrating when you can't get the Android OS you want in the phone you want.

Take, for instance, last week's Cliq XT launch. Here's a brand new phone from T-Mobile, the latest Android handset to hit the market, but it features OS 1.5. Indeed, the phone is a fantastic buy for the price, with its Flash Lite, pinch zooming, five-megapixel camera, and Swype keyboard.

After only a few days with the unit, I can say that I love the form factor of the phone, but I miss some of the apps from my T-Mobile G1 that ran OS 1.6. I've lost Google Maps 4.1, Google Maps Navigator, and a few other favorites from the last few months. Also, the new Google Buzz widget won't run on 1.5 phones. As much as I like that app so far, I've had to put it on the shelf with the G1.

I knew going in that I wouldn't be able to run some of the titles I've come to enjoy since upgrading to Donut (1.6). So why did I do it? Why would I buy a new phone with an old OS? Because once Motorola updates it in the coming quarter, I think the Cliq XT could be one of the best Android phones on the market.

For another example, imagine your friend or co-worker's frustration when they finally make the jump to Android because of all the great apps on your Droid. They go to the store and pick up a brand new Backflip from AT&T only to find they can't install Gestures or Goggles, which are supported only by 1.6 and above.

Screen size and various hardware also play an important role in determining compatibility with applications. With no less than three sizes and resolutions supported by Android, it's important for developers to understand how, or even if, their apps will work on individual handsets. To help combat that, Google has taken steps to help developers with a host of tools. Resources available include tips on designing for performance, responsiveness, and a seamless experience.

With Motorola's MotoBlur, HTC's Sense, and all the other builds floating around, it's tough to ensure that every app plays nice with each flavor of Android. For developers, it's not exactly practical to test applications against every phone and firmware. Also, thanks to its open-source nature, Android allows hackers to develop their own custom apps, too. Though they constitute only a small fraction of the overall Android user base, they still present a problem.

Developer Chris Fagan of Froogloid said that fragmentation isn't a big obstacle and that things aren't quite as bad as blogs and tech sites make things out to be. Still, he doesn't see a problem with Google getting a little bit tougher on the various official app and hardware makers.

I recommended that Google start providing stricter guidelines for approving and testing apps. I can say that fragmentation isn't necessarily my biggest worry and I don't think it's getting worse, but I caution that the biggest test will be when all the 1.5 devices start migrating to later firmware.

So, is Google doing more to make sure that fragmentation doesn't get worse? As I perceive it, it cares more about handsets being compatible with Android than with the different versions of the platform. But, According to Google, the company is doing a number of things to try to prevent fragmentation.

For example, it is creating a Compatibility Test Suite for handset manufacturers that evaluates a range of factors to ensure they are compatible with the Android platform. Only devices that pass this test will be allowed access to Android Market.

I like to think that the releases of Android will slow down somewhat now, as the core functions and APIs have already been given to developers. Down the road, I expect the focus to shift from what can be added to Android to how the aesthetics can be improved. The new photo gallery from Cooliris on the Nexus One is an example, but anyone with a stock Android handset will tell you that the music player could use some of the same attention. Adding gradients, shading, and an overall polish can go a long way to swaying potential customers. Android could look as beautiful as any other platform out there, including that of the iPhone and the Palm Pre.