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Android's Crazy-Quilt Syndrome

Android's Crazy-Quilt Syndrome

Android's fragmentation is a bane and a boon. Developers have a dizzying number of devices to test if they want to make their apps available to a large swath of the market. For consumers, though, fragmentation means choice -- there's pretty much an Android for everyone. "The availability of Android in open source ... has been a key ingredient in its market dominance," said IDC's Al Hilwa.

By Richard Adhikari LinuxInsider ECT News Network
08/01/13 5:00 AM PT

There's no question that Android is fragmented. OpenSignal has counted nearly 11,900 distinct Android devices so far this year, compared with fewer than 4,000 last year.

OpenSignal's visual representations of the number of devices and the brands are a welter of shapes and colors. Think crazy quilts sewn by demented craftspeople inhaling non-tobacco substances.

Android Device Fragmentation
Android Device Fragmentation
(click to enlarge)

The results of fragmentation are mixed.

"In some ways it helps developers by bringing them to a larger market, but in other ways it makes it harder for them since the product is harder to refine," James Robinson, chief technology officer at OpenSignal, told LinuxInsider.

Indeed. "Developers have to work harder to support Android because they have to make decisions around screen sizes, OS generations and specific devices to support," remarked Al Hilwa, a program director at IDC. "Many low-end Android devices are used as feature phone replacements and their users rarely run apps ... so developers have to prioritize."

On the other hand, the level of competition among Android device makers "has driven prices to such a point where it's possible for many to get a smartphone when they couldn't have otherwise afforded one," Robinson pointed out.

Getting Down to the Numbers

OpenSignal's statistics were drawn from 682,000 unique devices that downloaded its app. This is the same number of devices that supplied the statistics for last year's fragmentation report.

Fragmentation has tripled, with even more obscure devices from around the world downloading OpenSignal's app this year.

These include the Exagerate XZPAD700, the Turbopad 1000, the Piranha Business Tab 10.1 Zeus White, R09 Crystal Apples, Wiko Cink Pezx, Unusual Vortex Dual and Pentagram Eon Prime 2.

It is not only the device market that's fragmented, but also the OS itself. There are eight versions of Android currently in use.

Gingerbread runs on about 34 percent of the devices, the Android developer dashboard shows. Jelly Bean comes next with nearly 37 percent between its two versions; and Ice Cream Sandwich takes up just over 23 percent.

Honeycomb and Donut are at the bottom of the list with 0.1 percent of devices each, and other versions of Android make up the rest. Google doesn't count anything with less than 0.1 percent of devices.

Multiplying and Being Fruitful

"The availability of Android in open source for device makers to make any kind of device they like has been a key ingredient in its market dominance," IDC's Hilwa told LinuxInsider.

"It's easier to get a basic version of an app running on Android than it is on iOS, but it's harder to polish it and make sure it works on all devices," OpenSignal's Robinson said. "Apps failing on specific devices cause headaches to both developers and consumers, so it's true that the increased consumer choice doesn't come without its challenges."

What's in It for Devs?

Prioritizing development targets works to some extent. Most developers focus on Gingerbread and later versions of Android, which gives them "around 95 percent of the market without having to trouble with all the API levels," Robinson pointed out.

Flurry Analytics' figures tell a different tale: Devs have to support 331 Android devices to ensure their apps run on 90 percent of the connected devices currently in use. Going down to 80 percent will involve supporting 156 devices; 60 percent will mean optimizing their app for 37 devices; and 50 percent, 18 devices.

The time and cost of optimizing and testing apps means few developers make more than US$500 per app a month, VisionMobile reported in January.

Devices running iOS average 14 times the number of active users that devices running other platforms do, Flurry said. Perhaps devs should continue focusing on iOS.

"It's all about the available content and applications, and fragmentation is really bad for the developers who make these apps," Simon Khalaf, CEO of Flurry Analytics, told LinuxInsider. "If fragmentation continues to hurt the developer, then less content will come to these devices -- and consumers will suffer."

As for OpenSignal's crazy-quilt visual representations, "data visualization is key to any type of research," Khalaf said, "but art is another dimension."

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