Android’s Fragmentation Mess–and How to Fix It

The next version of Google's mobile operating system looks impressive. But it may not be coming to an Android phone near you any time soon.

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On Friday, Verizon Wireless will begin selling the Droid RAZR, a new Motorola phone based on Google’s Android operating system. In multiple ways, it’s an impressive piece of work. The Kevlar-backed RAZR is the thinnest smartphone on the market–yes, thinner than the iPhone 4S–and among the most handsome. Thanks to its dual-core processor and LTE wireless connection, it’s also exceptionally snappy. Motorola has given the phone a clever feature that lets it automatically perform actions when specific criteria are met: It can play music whenever you plug in headphones, for instance, or shut off its Bluetooth to conserve battery juice when you’re at home.

But within hours of being unveiled on October 18th, the RAZR felt like yesterday’s news. That’s because Google and Samsung trumped it by announcing the Galaxy Nexus, a similar phone that’s the first to run Android 4.0, a promising upgrade also known as Ice Cream Sandwich. The RAZR will ship with Android 2.3 Gingerbread, a version that dates from last year.

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The RAZR won’t be stuck on Gingerbread forever. Motorola says that it’s committed to providing a software update in the first half of 2012, which sounds like it’s giving itself plenty of padding just in case. Even once it gets the upgrade, though, the RAZR will show telltale signs that it’s a pre-Ice Cream Sandwich device: It sports dedicated buttons for functions such as calling up the home screen, a feature that the new Android replaces with on-screen icons.

Bottom line: A major new Android handset that hasn’t hit the market yet is already a tad stale.

It’s not a new problem. I call it “Day-Old Bread Syndrome,” and I’ve been griping about it ever since early 2010. That’s when Verizon’s original Droid turned into an antique just weeks after its release, as Google updated Android from 2.0 (which that Droid ran) to 2.1 (which it didn’t get for months). That meant that the almost-new phone couldn’t run apps such as Google’s own Google Earth.

The Droids have plenty of company when it comes to Android-version woes. As blogger Michael DeGusta recently demonstrated in a remarkably revealing infographic, most Android phones quickly end up with outdated versions of the software, and get stuck there. It’s left the Android market deeply fragmented.

Even when Android handsets do get updates, it can take eons. Sprint’s Epic 4G, for instance, just got Gingerbread, almost a year after the software shipped. For Epic owners, Gingerbread finally showing up was less a happy event than a brusque reminder that they shouldn’t count on seeing Ice Cream Sandwich any time soon.

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If Android was the world’s only mobile operating system, Day-Old Bread Syndrome might seem like an ugly but unavoidable fact of life. But Android has an arch-rival in Apple’s iOS, the software on the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. So far, Apple has been releasing major iOS upgrades only once a year or less; when it does, you know that all new iPhones will run them, and that they’ll be available for previous models going back several years. This predictability eliminates any vague suspicion that the gadget you’re about to buy already suffers from obsolescence, planned or otherwise.

Apple, of course, has certain advantages over Google and Android phone makers. It writes its own operating system. It only has to test it on a handful of devices it designs itself, not hundreds of gizmos from a bevy of manufacturers. It controls the deployment of new versions rather than letting wireless carriers call the shots. Making everything work isn’t a cakewalk–and glitches aren’t unknown–but it’s a manageable challenge.

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It’s within Google’s power to take charge of the entire Android experience, which would make Apple-like updates possible. After all, the search behemoth is in the process of buying Motorola Mobility, one of the most prominent makers of Android hardware. But it insists that it’s going to go out of its way to operate Motorola as an independent entity that will compete fairly with Samsung and HTC and other manufacturers. If Motorola products get no preferential treatment, they won’t be any more seamlessly integrated with Android. (Me, I’m rooting for Google to break its word and at least try to turn Motorola into an exercise in Apple-like integration of hardware, software, and services.)

As things stand here in the real world, Google needs to design Android to run on devices of all sorts–cheapo phones with dismal specs, big-screen beauties like the RAZR, tablets, TV boxes and more, none of which it designs itself. It deploys software updates through wireless carriers, all of which want to do their own testing and some of which are profoundly conservative about approving anything that might prompt support calls or put their wireless network at risk. With all this in mind, there’s no scenario in which every new version of Google’s operating system could be available immediately for all Android-based products.

The diversity of Android hardware is a virtue as well as a complication–if you’re looking for a particular phone feature, such as a physical keyboard, odds are that one or more Android handsets offer it. Still, I think that the software situation is pretty depressing. More important, I think it’s possible to fix it.

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Here’s my unsolicited advice to Google and its partners:

  • Acknowledge that fragmentation is bad. When Google representatives have addressed the fractured nature of the Android market, they’ve sometimes denied that there’s any reason for concern and blamed any controversy on (ahem) rabble-rousing pundits. More recently, the company has said that it’s working with manufacturers to ensure that reasonably current phones receive updates. But I’d still like to see everyone involved make clear that they want new versions of Android to roll out more quickly and widely than they do today, and to explain how they’ll make it happen.
  • More at a slightly more leisurely pace.Google has typically released multiple new versions of Android a year. (The most recent one this year, 3.0 Honeycomb, ran only on tablets, not phones.) It’s painfully obvious that hardware companies can’t keep up with this rate of change.
  • Lay off on the custom interfaces. Device makers like to futz around with Android, slathering on their own layer of tweaks–such as Samsung’s TouchWiz–that usually make things different but not radically better. These changes have the potential to delay upgrades, since manufacturers have to rejigger them to work with new versions of the operating system. They’re just not worth it.
  • Aim more phones at folks who care about this stuff. Some fragmentation denialists argue that normal people don’t know or care what software is on their phones, and it’s therefore no biggie if they don’t have the newest version of Android. That’s certainly true of some normal people. Maybe even a majority. But a few phones–such as the Galaxy Nexus–already target more discerning consumers. Google calls them “Pure Google” devices, and they run unadulterated Android and get fast-track access to operating-system updates. This approach seems to work. So why not simply ramp up the percentage of Android phones that offer Pure Google?

Ice Cream Sandwich is bursting with promise. It’s the first Android update that looks like it has a shot at narrowing the daunting lead that Apple maintains over Google in terms of usability and general good taste. Here’s hoping that Google, hardware makers and wireless carriers do everything in their power to get it to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible–because it doesn’t really matter how impressive a piece of software is if you can’t get your hands on it.

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McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he’s @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday on

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