Choice is good. But sometimes, too many varieties of the same thing can be a big problem. Take mobile operating systems, Google’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android in particular.
Fragmentation has been an issue for it from day one. Smartphone manufacturers have released their handsets with different versions of Android — often along with a customized user interface as well — but they frequently failed to support Android updates. So, as time has gone on, fragmentation has become exponentially worse.
Consumer reaction to the issue has been mixed. For many, the answer to avoiding it altogether has been to buy one of Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhones or iPads. Apple tightly controls every aspect of the iOS ecosphere, including hardware specs, and it limits the variety of mobile devices it offers, so fragmentation is no concern in that camp.
Of course, some consumers find the control Apple exerts to be too much, or they find the cost of Apple devices to be too high, or they simply prefer the Android user experience. For those reasons, all Android mobile devices combined continue to outsell Apple’s.
However, Android fragmentation is reaching a critical point, leading some industry analysts (such as Business Insider’s Charlie Kindel) to openly speculate that Google has lost control of Android as a platform and a brand and will begin to distance itself from the developing mess.
Since 2008, Android has had eight major version releases: Version 1.0, Cupcake, Donut, Eclair, Froyo, Gingerbread, Honeycomb and Ice Cream Sandwich (those developers apparently run on sweets). In addition, each handset and tablet manufacturer has its own hardware specs, so everything from screen resolution to keyboard type is variable.
To understand the implications of all this for software developers, consider the Apple App store scenario. Apple’s iOS devices share one of two display ratios (so graphics can be easily scaled up or down between devices of the same class), and developers have just five iPhone models to account for and three iPads. And Apple has had just five major iOS releases. Over 90% of Apple device users are running one of the two most recent iOS versions.
Limited hardware and operating system versions with no customization to account for lets Apple developers create and test software efficiently.
Android is a very different story and getting more complex every day. Only 5% of devices are currently running the latest OS. Not only are there more OS versions to test on, (along with manufacturer customizations), the number of different devices in circulation has exploded. PCMag profiled OpenSignalMaps, an Android app developer. Over the course of six months, the company analyzed the devices downloading its apps and came up with these stats:
- Apps were downloaded by 3,997 distinctly different Android devices.
- Of those devices, there were 599 different manufacturers.
Having to account for such variation means testing for Android devices is either perfunctory, or it’s expensive and time-consuming.
Worse, even selling Android apps is fragmented. Google’s Android Market was supposed to be the one-stop shop (equivalent to Apple’s App Store), but with Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) and Barnes & Noble (NYSE:BKS) locking their Kindle Fire and NOOK tablets (among the top-selling Android tablets to date) to their own app stores, Google is missing out on that revenue — while Android developers are forced to go through additional app submission processes.
Bugs here and there for some users may be an inconvenience for a video game, but when it comes to workplace and productivity apps, higher standards are expected. Given the growing popularity of the BYOD (bring your own device) movement, solid apps are important. IT departments don’t want to be wasting resources supporting mobile devices; they expect the user experience to be essentially self managing.
So when Good Technology, a leader in enterprise mobile management, says the top six devices activated by its enterprise customers are all Apple — with the three-year-old iPhone 3GS seeing double the activations of the popular Samsung (PINK:SSNLF) Galaxy S II — Google has to be paying attention. Fragmentation is killing Android in the enterprise market.
And it apparently is. Reports say Google is planning to release new flagship Nexus phones running a single, unadulterated version of the next Android release (Jellybean) through as many as five different manufacturers (including, of course, its own Motorola Mobility), Google is signaling an attempt to reign in the fragmentation issue. Possible partners named include Samsung, HTC and LG.
At the same time, a Nexus tablet is rumored to be arriving this fall. In effect, Google would be attempting a do-over, trying to establish a premium Nexus brand as a rival to Apple, especially in the increasingly important enterprise market.
By pushing out the latest and greatest Android version on multiple devices simultaneously, the percentage of devices running the current operating system should spike significantly. Between this and the focus on Nexus hardware, Android developers would have a much narrower target to concentrate on. Android would still be there (as both a brand and a platform), but Google would be able to market these flagship Nexus devices as the killer alternatives to Apple’s iOS devices for high-end and enterprise consumers.
Of course, this is still all speculation. The only fact is that Android fragmentation has progressed beyond nuisance to a being a threat to the platform and killing its chances of enterprise adoption.
As of this writing Brad Moon doesn’t hold any securities mentioned here.