Android Fragmentation Is a Figment of the Imagination, Google Says

Android fragmentation is a conspiracy cooked up by media and pundits, said Dan Morrill, open source and compatibility program manager for Google Android. Morrill noted that people who wrote about the supposed fragmentation problem for Android had different definitions for the term, rendering the description meaningless. Owners of older Android devices who can't access Google Maps Navigation, Google Gesture Search or Google Earth may disagree.

The use of the term "fragmentation" to describe Google's Android operating system has no merit because people can't agree what the term means, according to an Android developer.

In a June 1 post on the Android developer's blog, Dan Morrill, open source and compatibility program manager for Google Android, said he remembered first seeing the "F-word" in stories shortly after Android Vice President of Engineering Andy Rubin and Google CEO Eric Schmidt unveiled Android on Nov. 5, 2007.

Morrill noted that people who wrote about the supposed fragmentation problem for Android had different definitions for the term.

For example, he noted that some people use it to describe that Google pumps out too many operating systems, while others claim it refers to optional APIs causing inconsistent platform implementations. Others use it to describe "locked down" devices, or the existence of multiple versions of the software at the same time.

"Because it means everything, it actually means nothing, so the term is useless," Morrill argued. "Stories on 'fragmentation' are dramatic and they drive traffic to pundits' blogs, but they have little to do with reality. 'Fragmentation' is a bogeyman, a red herring, a story you tell to frighten junior developers. Yawn."

While Morrill's position accurately reflects that of the company to date, there are signs the company has had trouble keeping Android up to par with its own applications.

Google has had to to adapt applications such as Google Maps Navigation and Google Gesture Search to work on Android 1.6 devices, in addition to the Android 2.0 or later builds they were initially created for. Google Earth for Android works on Android 2.1 devices and later.

So there are certainly compatibility issues in adapting Google applications for earlier versions of Android, such as 1.5 and 1.6. With each new version of Android -- Google is on Android 2.2, the Froyo build, now -- an older model gets shunted to the back of the line.

Morrill, who said Google defines "Android compatibility" as the ability of a device to properly run apps written with the Android SDK, addressed this issue in his post:

"While it's true that devices without the latest software can't run some of the latest apps, Android is 100 percent forward-compatible - apps written properly for older versions also run on the newest versions."

The choice is in app developers' hands as to whether they want to live on the bleeding edge for the flashiest features, or stay on older versions for the largest possible audience. And in the long term, as the mobile industry gets more accustomed to the idea of upgradeable phone software, more and more devices will be upgraded.

Morrill's position makes sense, but it may be of little comfort to owners of the Android 1.6-based HTC Droid Eris, or the Motorola Cliq and Backflip, which run Android 1.5. Owners of those phones have to wait until apps built for Android 2.0 or newer get ported to their smartphones.

And where there are consumers who can't access apps because they're running an older OS, there's bound to be allegations of fragmentation. The Technologizer puts a fine point on the issue in this post.

Google is unbowed by this, even as it is aware of the issues. Android head Rubin told the San Jose Mercury News:

"Our product cycle is now, basically twice a year, and it will probably end up being once a year when things start settling down, because a platform that's moving - it's hard for developers to keep up. I want developers to basically leverage the innovation. I don't want developers to have to predict the innovation."