Android’s biggest flaw: fragmentation

I’m pretty sure we’ve all heard of Android right? If you haven’t, I’d like you to review your life up to this point. I’m genuinely concerned for your sanity. In all seriousness, Android is a platform that has grown exponentially over the past couple of years and it took a long time for it to become the operating system that we all know and love.

Now, with over 1.4 billion users worldwide, Android is kinda accountable to us on the way it operates and Google is doing everything it can to keep this brilliant platform running smoothly and securely. Google obtained Android in 2005 and has been polishing it ever since, and it has matured to be one of the largest operating systems in the world. But, it is not without its flaws. There is only one weakness Android possesses. One major flaw. A curse, if you will.

I’m talking, of course, about fragmentation.

So, what is fragmentation?

The definition of the word must give you a pretty clear idea of what’s going on.

the process or state of breaking or being broken into fragments.

And for Android, that is literally what’s going on. The whole of the Android platform is breaking down into little crumbs of devices. You see, there are around 24,093 distinct Android devices in the wild, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. With that many devices, mother Google cannot take care of each specific device. That responsibility lies with the OEM (or Original Equipment Manufacturers).

Sure, the numbers are a good sign that Android is widely accepted and most OEMs generally resort to it for whatever device they manufacture. But, this means that Android is not completely optimized for whatever device it may be running on. Not in the sense that Google wants, anyway. And this is why fragmentation is a bad thing.

Sure, fragmentation gives us a bit of diversity when it comes to choosing our device, and we should be allowed to choose whatever we like. But, the issue here is that the problem has risen to unsustainable levels. As the saying goes: too much of a good thing is… a bad thing.

What are the issues that this problem has given rise to?

Software fragmentation

There are a lot of devices out there, and I’ve been ranting about this point since the beginning of this article. And this raises the issue to new heights. You see, when I mentioned that Google can’t control every device that uses its operating system, I mean it. Which means that when they release a new software update, it’s up to the OEMs to decide whether to update your device or not. And sometimes they pass on that chance.

So, how do I impress you on the magnitude of this problem? Well, just take a look at the statistics below.

The latest Android distribution chart (as of March 2016) shows that: Marshmallow is on just 2.3% of all Android smartphones. Pathetic. Lollipop’s on the rise with around 36.1% followed by KitKat with 34%. You see, the latest version of Android is on just 2.3% of all Android devices, if that’s any indication. Android N is scheduled for release in September of this year. Who knows how many devices that’ll occupy.

Well, that’s one end of the spectrum. The other end is hardware.

Hardware fragmentation

Hardware fragmentation is exactly what it sounds like. Google wants control over what Android can offer, and according to them, Android can offer much, much more. But, they’re being slowed down by OEMs. See, Android has to be modified by OEMs to support the features which are only supported by that particular device. So, if you’re smartphone doesn’t have a fingerprint scanner, then, that feature has to removed from the OS the smartphone is running.

If Google wants Android to support any feature, it has to ensure that the OEMs support that feature first, which is a shame. This is not the only thing that goes along this way. Specific hardware modules have been going down in frequency since 2012, like the barometer, for instance. Google reckons that it could’ve gone further than anybody if it didn’t have to bother with OEMs, but, as they say, you can’t have everything in life.

But, there’s still one more issue that I haven’t mentioned yet.

Application support

You know, back in the day, there used to be times when some apps on the Play Store refused to work on some devices, mentioning that they were not compatible. This is a direct end-result of the aforementioned problem, fragmentation. Albeit, nowadays, it’s not much of an issue. But, you can still find some applications that may not be compatible with your device, and that stinks.

The problem is not limited to applications, oh no. There are more things to consider. If you buy a smartphone manufactured by Samsung, or HTC for example, you may find that it does not exactly give you a ‘stock’ Android experience. They had a skin layered on top of Android; TouchWiz, and SenseUI. This meant that every time a new update was rolled out by Google, they had to tweak that version to the skin which was layered on top which was not very time-efficient.

And wireless carriers had their own rules regarding how updates were meant to be rolled out, and this was a very costly process. It was too much of a hassle that, like I mentioned before, manufacturers didn’t even bother updating their devices.

What does it matter if some devices didn’t get the latest update, you ask? Security. Updates contain security patches and if they’re not addressed in time, it’ll make your device vulnerable, like how many devices currently are.

So, how do you fix fragmentation?

Google was very well aware of the problem before it actually became a thing. So, they had a few things to do to fix the problem.

For security, the idea was quite innovative. They bundled the month’s security patches with an update for Google Play Services, that anyone could avail from the Play Store.

Google has also reportedly been manufacturing their own smartphone microprocessors, which would help them to align their vision of Android with the hardware of their choice. However, it’ll still be quite difficult to bring OEMs on board with whatever Google may be planning.

Finally, the most promising effort to end, or partially end, fragmentation is the newest version of Android. Android N.

Right now, most Android versions are kinda like a unified system which chugs along quite nicely. But, once Google decides to roll out an update, it creates a veritable bedlam of disorganization among different OEMs and carriers.

I’ve mentioned this before, and I’ll do that once again. If devices don’t get the latest version of Android, it’ll create massive security holes in it, which is not good. Furthermore, most devices that don’t get the update are perfectly capable of running it.

To solve this problem, Android N is dividing the Android ecosystem. Simply put, it’ll create a front-end, and a back-end. The front-end will be what’s on display. Samsung can still have TouchWiz, and HTC their SenseUI.

But, the back-end will be uniform with every device, and Google will be able to control it independently. So, security patches, and regular bug fixes can be rolled out, without any interference from OEMs.

These are some pretty cool ways Google is trying to solve an enormous problem, and I’ve to say, they’re doing a pretty good job.

Rashid Saleh is a 16 year old tech enthusiast who is fascinated about things with a screen. Find him on Instagram @that_tall_guy_30

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