Do Androids Dream of Fragmented Sheep?

android_bites_apple.jpg The Google-backed Android phone platform has a huge problem with fragmentation, or the number of different releases and adaptations of Android for different phone platforms over its history. Or this is no problem at all. It depends on who you ask. Ken Segall, a former branding chief at Apple--branding as in marketing, not burning flesh, although with Apple, it may be necessary to clarify the difference--wanted to help his 13-year-old son buy an Android phone. The results are illuminating. Segall took his son to an AT&T Wireless store, looked at two phones of interest that ran Android 2.1, and tried his darnedest to get a straight answer about whether either model was upgradable to 2.2. The 2.2 release includes tethering (phone as modem) and mobile hotspot (phone as Wi-Fi/cell router) options, among a number of other well-received improvements.
(Tethering and mobile hotspot service are disabled on most 2.2 handsets sold, such as those from Verizon Wireless, even though most carriers often such services on other phones with add-on pricing; T-Mobile is a notable exception. It's an "open" platform, though, so you should be able to just go into settings and turn these features on? Yeah, right. And if you hack the phone to remove the locks that disable the feature, you may find on some models that the phone reverts the firmware.) It's also useful to know whether there's a continuous upgrade path for a phone you spend hundreds of dollars on, and for which you are locked into a two-year contract with a penalty for early cancellation. While Apple has never made specific upgrade promises about its phones, the company seems to have a two-year cycle for iOS upgrade support: the 2007 iPhone and iPod touch came with 1.0 and can run 3.2, but not the latest 4.x releases; the 2008 iPhone and iPod touch can run 4.2, but can't take advantage of every new feature because of process limitations. No carrier worldwide has seemingly been able to prevent upgrades, either. Answer came there none from the AT&T store employees. Or, rather, a lot of disarming honesty about not having an answer. The reps at the store did not know whether a 2.2 upgrade was possible, and, after one diligently researched the matter, there was still no answer nor a guarantee. Steve Jobs, maker of the proprietary, locked-down iOS, made bellicose noises during an analyst's call a few weeks ago about the hundreds of finely and coarsely different versions of Androids running on phones. And it's true that you can purchase new phones today that use Android 1.5, 1.6, 1.7, 2.0, 2.1, and 2.2 versions, only some of which can be upgraded to any newer release than the one with which each phone shipped. Each of those versions has been customized by carriers, too. Google's own Nexus One is out of production, so there's no baseline phone that should be über-Android-ish to compare against. The counter argument against the trope of fragmentation is that there's a robustness in the marketplace that provides room for many phones with different capabilities, and that there's nothing particularly wrong with a phone running 1.x if it's marketed as something less expensive and less full featured than one with 2.x. You can pick any iPhone, so long as it's black, while you have hundreds of choices for Android phones. The associated argument was, now somewhat corrupted, that as an open platform, end-users could choose to customize phones they purchased, including installed unsupported OS upgrades. It's absolutely not a straightforward option, even though many models of phones have been rooted, the rough equivalent of iPhone jailbreaking. Google is not mediating the problem of underperformance and overchoice. It ceded specific control over the form and manner in which Android is implemented on phones, although it reportedly can wield a heavy hammer over manufacturers in withholding its proprietary services that are layered on top of Android, and which are not part of the open-source happy dancing bears approach. That includes the Android Marketplace, Google apps and data, and Android certification. Microsoft has opted for a third course. It won't make its own phones, but it has set specific minimum hardware requirements for Windows Phone 7 devices to make sure that every phone released is a premium model, and, seemingly, there's an easy path to upgrades by having enough power under the hood to accept them. (Microsoft has been a bit waffly on how upgrades will be provided. When asked whether carriers could prevent upgrades, Microsoft said it will make them available to all phone owners, but it's unclear how phone owners would gain access to such upgrades if carriers don't roll them out--some manual download and install process unsupported by carriers could be involved.) In the end, Segall's son just wanted a phone that he knew was futureproofed against the past: Android 2.2 has been shipping for weeks, and a modern phone purchased at retail from a carrier doesn't have the release installed and he can get no guarantee it will. That's not fragmentation or diversity. It's just plain confusion. Photo by Tsahi Levent-Levi, used via Creative Commons.


  1. “The counter argument against the trope of fragmentation is that there’s a robustness in the marketplace that provides rooms for many phones with different capabilities, and that there’s nothing particularly wrong with a phone running 1.x if it’s marketed as something less expensive and less full featured than one with 2.x.”

    Unless you’re hoping to foster a strong development community that can target a single platform instead of multiple iterations with different levels of functionality, support, and market share.

  2. The major problem with fragmentation that I’ve experienced is QA. Apple only has a small number of devices to QA for, which means they can really dive deep into rooting out the bugs.

    On my Android phone, on the other hand, the 2.2 upgrade introduced a number of extremely minor bugs that annoyed the hell out of me. For instance, I could no longer edit calendar items in calendar item view — I had to back out and select edit from the agenda view. Minor? Yes. Annoying? Infinitely. The cause of the problem? Fragmentation. Because there are so many versions, they don’t have time or resources to QA each version to the standards one would expect.

    Incidentally, they (Verizon) released an update that fixed the bugs. Only took them three months. Curse fragmentation.

  3. “It’s also useful to know whether there’s a continuous upgrade path for a phone you spend hundreds of dollars on, and for which you are locked into a two-year contract with a penalty for early cancellation.”

    That’s the sticking point here, and the reason I’ll happily stick with my iPhone despite knowing that Android is a “healthier” choice for being open. It’s nice to look at Android as an open platform akin to a computer, but a computer isn’t tied to a service — when you buy a laptop from Dell or Apple, you’re not forced to sign a 2-year contract with your internet provider or electrical company where the device can ONLY be used with that company. When I have a 2-year AT&T contract with my iPhone, it’s comforting to know that every other iPhone user is in the same boat as me, and any issues will be addressed uniformly. Until the consumer gets to make choices akin to computers, where you get to choose your hardware, the software that runs on it, and the service you use it on, we’ll only really have the illusion of a truly open platform.

    1. Unless you live in Europe, so that you don’t have to worry about carriers.

      Geez, these forums are so US-centered that people always forgets that different problems and situations may happen in different countries.

  4. For a tech guy you think he would have looked to the various Android forums for some answers. Most cell store employees can barely get you an answer on what case / headset / battery / charger will work with your phone. Hoping they know an upgrade path to the phone’s software is asking quite a bit…

    How are those early adopter iPhone users doing? Running iOS 4.? without problems? Did they know when they bought the first iPhone that they would have an easy upgrade path for software?

    It would be nice to see Android come in maybe 2-3 stock flavors – meaning tuned as a base package based on minimum hardware requirements. Without the minimum hardware requirements there would be no way of using the package on phones. This would force manufacturers and carriers to pay better attention to upgrades and longer service life of their products… but most likely, in 2 years the software and hardware will have leaped beyond where we are at today. I think its a bit of a stretch for an Apple marketing dad to play dumb here. There really is little one can do to fully future proof a phone – especially if one is buying it subsidized on a carrier. The carriers are just as guilty as the manufacturers in delaying updates – and overlaying the phones with bloat and crapware. Assume that what you are buying is what you’ll have in hand for the life of the contract and move on. Or root / jailbreak / and hack your way to a better experience.

  5. Actually, no phone out there reverts the firmware – the G2 fw just had a bug that made it look as if the fs was being written to, but didn’t actually do any writing. Cyanogen himself confirmed this. The G2 has since been fully rooted.

  6. The capriciousness of the Android carriers also extends to the proprietary apps allowed on each model.

    But, as it has been for a long, long time, you really have cull the dedicated fan sites to get the lowdown on the phone you want to buy. You can’t claim that Apple is entirely forthcoming about the features/limitations about its devices.

    I wouldn’t think of contacting a carrier to ask a detailed question about a phone they sold. That’s just the way it is.

    Also, two years is long wait when it comes to smart phone upgrades. Carriers have to offer subsidies that don’t make the user wait till the contract expires.

  7. I don’t care what Segall’s son wants (nothing in this life is future proof), seems like his father is not intelligent enough to know that some Android phones are crippled by carriers (specially AT&T) and phone brands, this is not controlled by Android.
    I have a Nexus One, when Google stops upgrading my phone, then I will root it and install the latest update? Is this hard? Just follow the instructions?

  8. This argument has so many holes, it hurts. But most boil down to choice.

    Apple’s position is that choice is bad, so they don’t offer it. Choice leads to confusion, confusion leads to anger, and anger leads to the dark side. So just avoid choice … and choose Apple. You won’t have to choose what kind of phone, you won’t have to choose where to get your apps, you won’t have to choose anything ever again.

    Meanwhile, comparing rev numbers, how many Android revs were to lock out features? How many Apple revs? And is 2.1 to 2.2 the same jump as 4.1 to 4.2?

    Finally, the last argument is against the service and phone providers, not Android itself. AT&T staff didn’t know anything more about the upgrade path of that phone vs anything Apple sells. They just sell phones. Phone makers and service providers provide different flavors of Android. Again, that’s a criticism of makers and phone companies, not of Android.

    In the end, Android is just software. Criticize it for its features. Don’t criticize it for what someone has done with it.

  9. Do you think this story of a former Apple employee buying an android phone to his son is real?
    I don’t buy this BS.
    This post is written to talk trash about Android. While you keep doing it, Android is Skyrocketing and quickly becoming the most used smartphone OS. You buy the phone you want and need, intelligent people reads about what they buy.

  10. What Steve Jobs calls fragmentation, I would call consumer choice. What Steve Jobs calls unified and consistent, I would call dictated and limited.

    I chose an Android phone because I don’t want Steve Jobs’ “any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black” form of user experience.

    We’ve seen apps removed from the iPhone apps store because Apple didn’t like them. I’ve only heard of apps being removed from the Android market because they were violating user privacy.

    It’d be nice if cell phones weren’t tied to a service provider (like just about every mobile device, be it iPhone, Droid, or iPad), but you’re just not seeing that in the US right now. You’re also not seeing the updates being important over a long period of time because the companies are interested in selling more phones. They don’t want you to keep and update your old phone.

  11. By the way, some people are running the latest Android version (Froyo 2.2) on their HTC G1(The first android phone ever released). So I am sure one way or another most of the newer android phones can be updated with the latest android os. Just search the forums on the internet.

    1. ‘zackly. The Android community is devoted enough to port the OS to non-Android handsets (iPhone included) and x86 PCs. You can overclock for a noticeable boost, even if your handset can’t officially support the version of Android you’re trying to run on it. Hell, you can run Ubuntu within Android.

      In the UK there are exactly the same issues in terms of firmware and OS upgrades — the manufacturer gets the source on time, projects a release date, maybe (probably) oversteps that date by a bit, and then passes the update on to the carrier. Then the carriers (over here at least) spend a month to a year “testing” the upgrade (bloating the upgrade and ensuring it’s as locked down as possible) before staggering an OTA, leaving customers on the same and different networks getting different upgrades at different times.

      Android is fragmented only for those that don’t view it as an OS — and why would those people care about tethering and such?

  12. Segall’s inability to get answers to his questions doesn’t appear to be related to fragmentation. On the contrary– one might imagine that ‘good customer service’ would be an attractive distinguishing characteristic for the many hardware/service vendors who are struggling to stand out from the crowd– but this doesn’t seem to be happening.

    My guess is that the Android vendors are sticking with their old confusion/low-information strategies. It worked in the past, and changing it now is just more costs at a time when every penny counts…

  13. Not sure if you have magical “retention departments” on US carriers, but in the UK we can effectively abuse our carrier/network by claiming we’re thinking of leaving. They don’t care how little you pay them as long as you give them something on a regular basis. I pay around £15/$23 per month and can leave at any time, because I asked for a very basic contract and bought my handset outright from the network. It’s my handset, it’s rooted and I can use it for anything I want on any network I want. In order to get the handset free I would have had to pay at least £35 ($54) per month for 24 months.

    On that basis, anybody with half a mind for tech would be a lot better off trying it on with their carrier and attempting to get the phone outright. Then it can be rooted and (hopefully) unlocked. If you make it clear to the company that your monthly payments will disappear because you’re unsatisfied, they tend to step down a little. If you do that, a lot of handsets have unofficial custom ROMs floating around with the latest version of Android — and believe me, a customised ROM is essential if you want to get the most out of your phone.

  14. The locked down android phones amaze me, they really do. If I wanted a phone rigidly controlled and limited I’d buy an iPhone.
    The reason I don’t is specifically because I want a phone I can upgrade how I want and install what I want on it. And I think the same is true for a lot of android fans. So why oh why don’t phone companies get this into their thick skulls. A phone you actually own all of is worth more than one where you have to ask Jobs or anyone else before you do something with it.

  15. Nexus One will be replaced by the Samsung Nexus S, becoming the new standard android phone.
    And to say that rooting my phone is about the same as jailbreaking is not correct.
    I can install apps outside android market without rooting my phone, you can not do the same with iOS.

  16. I’m just wondering when someone is going to make a smart phone that has good call quality…you know cause it is a phone? Right?

    1. My Nexus One has an excellent phone call quality. It comes with 2 mics, 1 for my voice and the other for ambient noise reduction.

  17. So this Apple guy is concerned that a particular Android phone may not be upgradeable to support tethering. At least that bit of confusion doesn’t exist with the iPhone – the answer is a very firm “No.”

    It sounds like the Android world must be dealt with on its own terms, which are that the carrier has a lot of sway over how nice your experience will be. At least there’s a wide choice of handsets and carriers.

    Long live the confusopoly!

    1. “So this Apple guy is concerned that a particular Android phone may not be upgradeable to support tethering. At least that bit of confusion doesn’t exist with the iPhone – the answer is a very firm “No.””

      Apple enabled tethering on the iPhone with iOS 3 in parts of the world, and with AT&T in iOS 4. It’s too expensive, and too limited, but it works just as advertised.

  18. Nearly all the virtues pointed out by the Android crowd in the comments sound to me like the problems the iPhone solved for me. Users are idiots because they don’t want to spend hours discussing the vagaries of a specific Android phones implementation online, if they don’t get official updates they should just roll their own and the advantages of all this are things like the ability to “overclock.” If this attitude is representative of the Android community it’s the desktop Linux debacle all over again.

  19. The biggest problem with the fragmentation/lock-in mess that is Android is not problems getting extra features like wireless tether. No, the problem is security updates! There are already vulnerabilities in the Android browser. Hundreds of thousands of people are carrying around computers that are always on, always connected, have no firewall, make it very hard for the common user to know if the phone is compromised or not AND the users are locked in to a 2 year contract AND there are no official updates because it is “old hardware” i.e. bought for >400$ in the ancient year of 2009. In short, the Android fragmentation mess is a botnet in the making.

  20. I’d also add that if he’s spending a “couple hundred dollars” for an android phone, he isn’t shopping around…

  21. I found Segall’s criticisms about difficulty finding out which models were Froyo-ready and which weren’t to be vaguely unfounded. They would be certainly applicable if Android were trying to be iOS, but it isn’t. It’s attempting to be a platform. More Windows than OSX.

    Mainly, though, I was under the impression that everyone at this point has concluded that HTC phones are the Android gold standard. That simplifies matters significantly for the Apple-set crowd, and anyone else willing to subject themselves to willful ignorance when it comes to consumer choice.

  22. Can’t we just say that mobile phones as a whole are fully and fractally fragmented and just leave it at that without invoking brand loyalty? We have no one to blame but ourselves. This would all go away if everyone on the planet could just agree on a single device and move on.

    Speaking as someone who has been developing mobile apps since the days when phones still had monochrome screens, I do enjoy watching other mobile developers quake in fear at the prospect of supporting different devices and platforms. Fragmentation isn’t going anywhere. If that scares you, then it just means more jobs for me :)

  23. Surprise, someone who is “a journalist who writes about Wi-Fi, Apple stuff, and other tech for The Economist, TidBITS, and Ars Technica” is repeating the Apple party line about Android fragmentation? Using AT&T, the company that currently has a lock on the iPhone in the U.S., as the example? Nice use of the word journalism. I used to be a journalist, and this doesn’t qualify for that word. It’s good the Apple bias is right there in his bio with his byline, but c’mon, a little objectivity would be appreciated. A tech hit-piece like this so near shopping season should be balanced out with something anti-Apple. I’ll hold my breath.

    1. repeating the Apple party line about Android fragmentation

      Let the record show that I was talking about Android fragmentation when version 1.6 shipped and some 1.5 phones weren’t provided supported upgrade paths or any upgrade path to 1.6.

      I suppose I shouldn’t have to defend this, but “writing about Apple stuff” is not akin to “being on Apple’s payroll.” I write for independent media outlets with which my only relationship is with an editor. I have written critically of Apple for decades, as well as praising them when it’s due.

      The danger of comments is that one’s entire body of work is apparently judged from three words in a biographical tagline!

  24. Your all idiots!!! the Nintendo 64 is the best system, and all you PlayStation nerds can shut up!!! 64 is better than 32 LOL!!!

    Oh, wait, I think I have the wrong lame nerd argument.

    1. Sorry for the double post, but I just realized that I missed the chance to say “GayStation,” and I’m really disappointed in myself. Carry on.

  25. Astounding how “Fragmentation” suddenly became a huge issue immediately after the Papal Bull on the topic by Pope Jobs the first? I’ve got tablets with Android 1.5 (A7HT), 1.6(Eken M 001, original flavor Maylong m-150, A5IT), 2.1 (ZT-180,SmartQV7,Samsung Intercept), 2.2 (SmartQ7) on them with nearly as many processors and resolutions as OS versions. Frankly, the A7HT which seems locked perpetually to 1.5 is arguably my favorite. Despite being subjected to such a horrific level of fragmentation, the majority at the screens of unholy 7″ tablets (Gasp! not the 7″ tablet!) I have not gone blind, developed hairy palms, or been driven to insanity, despite the predictions of fanboi concern trolls.

    Actually by and large the different versions of Android operate in nearly identical ways, requiring a bit of effort to discern the differences. In general, the differences between my tablets rest on video playback, otherwise the tablets are largely interchangeable.

    I also have a pre-paid Virgin Samsung Interceptor which is remarkably free of bloatware and quite handy despite limited resolution and a resistive screen. All in all it has performed perfectly well.

    Frankly, unlike the Apple monocuture, fragmentation promotes a broad diversity of products filling every niche on the mobile device ecology, just as the horribly fragmented PC architecture did before that.

  26. I’m pretty ignorant about this stuff, so please don’t clobber me. But I can buy any generic unlocked GSM phone I want to, drop in a generic prepaid SIM, and make calls all day long until my prepaid account runs out. If I don’t like the phone’s firmware, I can upgrade it with a cable from my computer (maybe). From what I understand, this is mostly thanks to EU legislation requiring mobile phone interoperability.

    So … when can I buy a generic Android phone, slip in a generic pepaid or pay-as-you-go 3G or 4G SIM, upgrade the OS at will, and use it any way I see fit?

  27. Wait, is the G1 iPhone just as good as the iPhone 3G, and the iPhone g3s and the iPhone 4?
    Different displays, processor capacity, but they’re all exactly the same? That seems to register as fragmentation to me. (Does angry birds play just as well on the original iPhone as the latest? If not, then that’s pretty much exactly what’s been giving this argument legs.)

    Also, this:
    “Apple enabled tethering on the iPhone with iOS 3 in parts of the world, and with AT&T in iOS 4. It’s too expensive, and too limited, but it works just as advertised. ”

    is confusing as hell to anybody that doesn’t watch the keynotes.

  28. I’m posting this from a remote area of Arizona using an Android phone that is rooted and providing faster wifi than I get in the office. I upgraded to 2.2 using a dump I found online.

    AT&T phones do not have signal in this location, so I consider their network coverage to be fragmented.

  29. If anyone thinks fragmentation isn’t an issue that hinders development, then you probably don’t want to hear how annoying it is having to create custom resources for THREE whole iOS devices… the old phone, the retina display phone, and the padge.

    It’s a lot more work! Now I have to do everything in triplicate. Four times, perhaps, if doing portrait and landscape orientations for the padge. Art, code, QA… it all goes up rapidly.

    Even the iOS market is slowly fragmenting. Oh for the good old days of predictable clock speeds and 320×480.

  30. Because when I’m looking for information about a product, someone who used to work for the marketing department of the competitor is always a great place to start. :-)

    That said, fragmentation sucks for the developer, but is great for the user. As fragmentation is just another word for choice. Want a larger 5″ phone or a smaller 3″ phone or a physical keyboard or any other wide range of hardware choices and Android has got you covered. Meanwhile as someone else already said, you can pick any iPhone as long as it’s black.

    Now I don’t expect the guys getting minimum wage at Best Buy to know anything about the computers anymore than the people working at mobile carrier store. Anyone who really knows their stuff, are using that knowledge to develop or work with the devices some way beyond working at a store.

    That said as other’s have pointed out, if someone is really concerned about staying on top of upgrades, they can get a Nexus One, or wait for the upcoming Nexus S. Both are set to handle upgrades directly from Google for the foreseeable future (likely similar to the iPhone, after 2 or more years they might stop getting updates).

  31. I’ve got an unlocked Nexus One (rooted). Google put out the Android 2.3 update last week to Nexus Ones – 2.2 isn’t the latest version anymore!

    Of course, if you’re rooted, it’s considerably more difficult to upgrade. You can’t use the auto-update that they push to you – you have to “roll it yourself”, or wait for someone to roll it and post it online.

    It’s not terribly difficult to do that kind of stuff, but… it is incredibly confusing to try to wade through the forum posts. You may know the type – they keep it all in one thread, so it’s got hundreds of posts, and they’ll go through five or ten different sets of instructions, tons of different files and different versions of them, and it’s all unorganized and not made friendly to navigate in any way – you have to wade through the whole thing, and read carefully, to ensure you’re doing the right thing.

    Just to be clear, this is only a problem if you’re rooted. If not, Google pushes out the update and it’s just one button press and a reset and you’re done. Of course, this only happens if you have a Nexus One or your carrier doesn’t suck…

  32. I guess I lucked out when I picked T-mobile because they were cheaper and their customer service people were nicer than my previous carriers. I didn’t even realize until the other day that other carriers load their systems with bloatware – my MyTouch 3g (AKA HTC Magic) has a few t-mobile specific apps, but they’re useful things like account services.

    It recently asked me if it could upgrade to 2.1, and then upgraded smoothly. My biggest complaint is that they played with the orientation sensitivity – I can now tip it sideways in either direction, yay, but it’s too sensitive and flips itself around a lot. Tethering is available – I just checked – although I haven’t tried it yet.

    Anyway, I think “fragmentation” is an interesting word to use in this case. Is Mozilla fragmented just because there are a whole bunch of web browsers that share their codebase with Firefox? And as for the “linux desktop debacle,” I’m not sure what the debacle was… and I’m using linux. Heck, if you count all my linux-running devices, I’m using four different flavors. I guess my life is fragmented…

    If the smartphone carriers weren’t layering their crap on top of Android, they’d be layering their crap on top of something else.

  33. I think one thing being overlooked is the primary cause of the fragmentation, and that is the wireless carrier’s themselves. Fragmentation is good for their business… Take for example the case of the Samsung Behold II. It came stock with Android 1.5, with a widely publicized promise of upgradeability to Android 2.x when released. After thousands were sold, TMobile announced that the device would never see Android 2.x after all, and that it would only get upgraded to Android 1.6. Now, one may think this is a hardware limitation, but hackers have installed Android 2.2 on this phone as a proof of concept, so its not a case of CAN’T be upgraded, its a case of WON’T be upgraded…. The question of Why not? is obvious…. Because if you want Android 2.x, you’re going to have to upgrade your phone, which nets the carrier an additional 2 year contract extension. So you see, fragmentation is good for business… You want the latest version, we won’t ALLOW upgrades to what you have so that we can FORCE YOU to upgrade your phone and extend your contract.

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