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September 17th 2013 2:16 pm

What does "fragmentation" mean with regard to mobile operating systems?

A recent post on Engadget about Apple offering older versions of apps that don't support the latest operating system resulted in a number of comments about fragmentation. They were always along the lines of something like:
  • Oh, so Apple admits fragmentation?
  • See, Android isn't the only one with fragmentation problems!
  • Apple is fragmented too, hypocrites!
I see these sorts of replies a lot when it comes to Apple. But I don't think people making this claim really understand what is meant when people use the term fragmentation. It's not simply a function of number of different operating systems that a company has released.

The closest example I have was at a previous gig with a mobile gaming company that made Top-10 grossing games for both iOS and Android. When it came to iOS, we knew we could target a minimum operating system (e.g., iOS 5), develop games for it and be reasonably sure that it would run on any device that supported iOS 5 or above. Of course it also helps that some 90%+ of Apple users were always running the latest available version of iOS.

With Android, it was all over the map. In addition to all the various operating systems, there were a huge number of devices we had to test and support for, all with separate hardware capabilities. It was a MASSIVE HEADACHE to get all this right and it was hellatious on our customer support teams: "Oh, your game is crashing? Which version of Android are you running? No, it's not Ice Cream. Ice Cream Sandwich maybe? Do you know the exact version number? Okay, which device? Are you sure it's a Samsung iGalaxy? Can you read the back of the device?"

Anyway, I'm sure you've seen this chart that was floating around last year, talking specifically about device fragmentation on Android. Now, also factor in that each of these devices are potentially running a ton of different operating systems. Ack!

(Via: opensignal.com­/reports­/fragmentation.php )

That said, we almost always developed for Android first. Why? No review process for their App Store. We could release a game and rapidly get feedback on new issues and bugs (and try to immediately fix them). After a few weeks of this sort of iterative testing on Android, we'd release a (hopefully more) polished product on iOS as a result.

Lastly, Google has been making some pretty big strides to resolve the issues developers have been having with fragmentation. The most notable example of this is the recent news that Google will be creating a new app called "Google Play Services" that will hopefully circumvent the slow carrier updates by keeping the phone updated with some of the latest APIs available in Android. You can read more about this new initiative here: arstechnica.com­/gadgets­/2013­/09­/balky­-carriers­-and...

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2 replies

  1. It's weird to use a chart that's 13 months old when you're talking about technology. That chart is irrelevant today. There are still a large number of different Android devices out there, but even the big manufacturers have scaled back on the sheer number of devices they release and have stated so publicly.
  2. You might want to be a tad clearer that the chart is specifically showing the number of Android device models out there and their popularity. You call it a "chart...about Android device fragmentation." That doesn't really mean anything.
  3. "Google will be creating a new app called 'Google Play Services'" It's already been created and exists on many models of Android phones, but probably just the Nexus devices at the moment. I think you mean that it'll be baked into 4.3.
Fragmentation is a stupid argument. I've almost never seen the actual effects of it on Android, and I'm sure the same can be said for iOS. The Android fanboys you quote early on in your post are just reacting out of years of abuse from their Apple cousins, but in the end I don't see it meaning much for either camp.

The only real issue with fragmentation on any of these platforms is that of security. Feature improvements that get left behind are annoying, but much of the time an older phone won't be capable of the latest updates anyway, and it's not going to kill people to not get it. In this regard, both Android and iOS have had issues with this. Siri wasn't available on some iPhone models when it was released, if I recall correctly. It happens on both platforms, but it's just not a big deal.

Everyone enjoy your phones, get the one that works best for you, and be happy with it! Get over the fanaticism, and just enjoy the device you have. I love my Nexus 4, and I'm thrilled that my wife loves her iPhone 5. We're both happy with our phones.
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Google Play Services is auto-updated on every Android device with access to the Play Store, as opposed to the older ones with Android Market or non-Google-certified devices.
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