Google’s Android Fragmentation Problem Persists: AdMob

Motorola’s Droid is the most used Android handset on the AdMob network — with 32 percent of traffic — so it might appear that Google’s Android fragmentation issues are over. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, according to the March metrics report from AdMob, which tracks smartphone usage through ads it provides mobile application developers — Android use on the AdMob network continues to be split fairly evenly among devices running three different versions of the OS. Such fragmentation challenges consumers and developers alike, as apps that run on one Android device may not run on another and consumers can feel that they’re missing out.

To put the fragmentation issue in perspective: Some 96 percent of all Android traffic on AdMob’s network was generated from just two devices on a single version of the OS in September 2009. Seven months later, that same amount of traffic came from 11 different devices across Android versions 1.5, 1.6 and 2.1, as shown by the AdMob graph below.

With the exception of Google’s Nexus One, carriers and handset makers ultimately control what Android version consumers use — carriers also have a say as to which updates get pushed to phones, so Google can’t upgrade every capable handset to its latest version of Android. And even in the case of the Nexus One, Google is backtracking on its strategy to gain greater control — the once web sales-only phone will be sold directly by Vodafone stores in the UK, while the version Google planned for Verizon Wireless isn’t coming to market after all.

Google has started to take steps to reduce the fragmentation, most recently by creating core applications outside of the base Android platform and making them available for download on both old and new Android handsets. As I pointed out last month, such an effort helps reduce fragmentation on existing handsets because “only the base Android functionality would be in the hands of carriers and handset makers, while third-party developers — and Google itself — would expand Android functionality through downloadable software.”

But Google needs to think about fragmentation when it comes to future handsets as well. Further decoupling of Android’s base functionality from installable software could come with Google’s Froyo and Gingerbread — code names for the next two Android iterations. Froyo is expected to debut in three weeks at a Google developer conference, but given the ultimate lack of control on what Android version a handset runs, a bigger (and totally unexpected) announcement would be Google pulling Android 1.x for new phones. Until Google exerts this type of control or decides to take an Apple-like approach and specifies standard hardware requirements for Android devices, the fragmentation issue is likely to continue.

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

Google’s Mobile Strategy: Understanding the Nexus One

Chart courtesy of AdMob

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