I am sure you have seen the recent articles in many Android blogs concerning the fragmention of Android. It’s a topic that comes up time and time again, including on this site.
In this article I’ll explain what fragmentation is, for those who aren’t quite sure, and also why Android users needn’t be concerned by it.
What Is Fragmentation?
Fragmentation in relation to Android usually refers to the separation or division of features across several phones or Android versions. Usually the up-in-arms attitude some blogs take is due to their own precious phone not officially receiving a distribution update. In the latest ‘disaster’ some older or partially incompatible phones will not be receiving the Ice Cream Sandwich build of Android. For instance, Google’s own Nexus One.
Fragmentation can also occur if a phone is able to receive a version update, but the carrier or network provider take their sweet time about it. More on this in a moment.
Why Fragmentation Is Inevitable
It is inevitable because Android is such a diverse operating system. It can run on so many devices, with such a wide spread of hardware and features. That’s its nature: anyone can build an Android device.
Ice Cream Sandwich has support for Face Unlocking via the front camera. My Desire HD is said to be receiving Ice Cream Sandwich at some point, but clearly not with this feature since I haven’t got a front-facing camera. So fragmentation has occurred here, and that puts developers in a difficult position. When they try to release cool new facial recognition applications, they will have to leave the Desire HD off their list of supported devices – unless they decide to use the rear camera instead, like Skype does for it’s Video Calling.
Manufacturers and Carriers Don’t Help
If you rely on your carrier to send you over-the-air updates, then you are almost certainly going to have a delay in getting new Android builds.
Once Google presents their final release candidate to the manufacturers, the manufacturers have to add all of their own software on top. For HTC, this consists of locked HBOOTs, RUUs, HTC Sense, and unecessary features married with bloatware. Due to this being done in a slow bureaucratic environment, this can take several months.
Once the manufacturers are done, the carriers are then invited to pile their lock-downs and additional unnecessary software on top. Do I really need “T-Mobile Recommendations”? Not really, and this process takes another few months.
Once the carriers are done, and further bureaucratic checks are made, the distribution is broadcast over-the-air to the appropriate devices. If Google release a build tomorrow, it will probably won’t be on your device until June 2012. (Well, that is my experience with OTA updates.)
Rooting Reduces Fragmentation
Android ROMs for rooted phones are a great way to avoid version fragmentation. Community-built distributions such as CyanogenMod help bring the latest versions of Android to as many compatible devices as possible, even if the ‘powers that be’ say they are incompatible.
I recall my HTC Wildfire was frozen on Android 2.2 Froyo. I wanted to try rooting, and CyanogenMod offered Android 2.3 (Gingerbread). HTC claimed that Gingerbread was incompatible, and required power that the Wildfire could not deliver. In the space of an hour I had the latest build of Cyanogenmod running on it, which was Gingerbread.
If your phone manufacturer has left your device off its Ice Cream Sandwich list, then don’t worry. If you give it a few months, I can almost guarantee there will be a lightweight, bloatware-free community build waiting for you.
iOS Doesn’t Have This Problem!
Sure it does, Apple just tries to hide it. Will the iPhone 4 be getting Siri? Did the iPhone 3G get the iOS 5 update at all? Apple chooses to cut the lifeline of updates to a device altogether, so they all eventually get stuck on the same ‘peak’ version.
Though this is a quick and easy way to lay the line on such things, I recall my original iPod Touch couldn’t play a game I wanted because I was on iOS 3.1.1, and the game demanded iOS 3.1.2 – or something like that.
Like I said, don’t worry about fragmentation in Android. If your device is compatible enough with an Android release, it is bound to get if you are patient. If not, check out some community-built ROMs. Rooting can be arduous sometimes, but it will probably let you get completely up to date.
Your phone can never have all of the features a new Android distribution brings, but it will include as many as possible.