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Google’s Android Fragmentation Problem Persists: AdMob

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Motorola’s Droid (s mot) is the most used Android (s goog) 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 (s vz) 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 (s aapl) 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

38 Responses to “Google’s Android Fragmentation Problem Persists: AdMob”

  1. Jonesable

    Im into tech, love android, hate the fragmentation. I understand the sentiment of a varied market and understand that ALL android devices cant carry the lastest version (hardware spec wise and business wise) , but from Cupcake to Eclair ,the Android version discrepency is frustrating as a consumer. Other Android lovers like to say fragmentation isnt a big issue but looking at the big picture and the future of Android I think it is…but I’m hopeful Froyo will take steps to correct it and carriers and makers cooperate accordingly.

  2. big diff between apple and android is:
    Apple needs to make a big fat gross margin on their unit sales to please Wall Street; whereas,
    Android sellers like Moto, Samsung, and HTC only need to make a small margin and don’t take on the cost of marketing the phones very much. So Android phones are going to end up being cheaper than iPhones, and more open to design changes.

    THAT is why Apple will ultimately lose. That and not enough variety. Still waiting for an iPhone with physical QWERTY to rival RIMM’s functionality.

  3. Chris

    Luckily, there’s a group of computer programmers who have successfully ported the Android 2.1 OS over to the HTC Hero (Sprint), which is what I’ve got. Before I was aware of this venture, I begrudgingly sputtered along on 1.5…

    About 2 months ago when I learned of the successful port, I happily “took the plunge” and flashed my phone to 2.1. I haven’t looked back since. My HTC Hero is now running 2.1 and is fully functional. The difference in performance was unbelievable.. and as far as I’ve seen so far, apps written for earlier OS versions are completely compatible with 2.1.

    Bye-bye fragmentation…

    P.S. – If any of you folks are in the same boat I was.. waiting impatiently for your OS upgrade on your Sprint HTC Hero, then go google “Fresh Kitchen Android”. Do a bit of reading on their site, and update your phone. You won’t be disappointed.

  4. dpeeps

    where this really comes into play is with hardware. not now, because we’re only talking from 1.5 to 2.1. But at some point, this becomes the same exact issue microsoft faced. Their OS was on so much different hardware that they had to consider that when doing any development of the OS. At some point Google just has to say, 1.5 isn’t valid, you can’t use it, sell it on new devices, things like that. because the fact of the matter is, 2.1 is very real now, they’re doing work on the next version, and there are devices not slated till the end of this year that plan on being released with 1.5. so either android os becomes just so huge to support so many different hardware configurations/devices, or they find some way, in working with the carriers, who should stay out of the software business anyways, to just provide those core OS updates through google. most average consumers though have a hard time figuring out that they’re really just holding a very tiny computer in their hands, but as things change, and smartphones continue to grow, and people start to have smaller devices than a laptop, that will change.

  5. Fragmentation will become MORE of an issue as the pad/slate android devices roll out in numbers later this year.. I can’t tell you how many of the existing apps were designed for the lowest common denominator (1.5) and on the 7,9, or 10 in screens, the apps fail to utilize the full screen real estate…

  6. Matthew

    Many are correct in saying that the “typical user” may not care about fragmentation in the Android platform, and this is probably correct. However, the typical user of 5 years ago is not the same as the typical user today, and much different from the typical user of the future. The difference? Applications.

    As of now, the burden is on app developers to ensure compatibility across multiple versions of the platform. It only takes one well known app that doesn’t work on an older version of the software to cause the typical user to suddenly start caring about their software version. This hasn’t happened yet (at least to a great extent), but the time will come.

    The fact that a user can walk into a store today and purchase a 1.5 or 1.6 android phone which may never be updated by the manufacturer may not be an issue today, but it’s only one killer 2.1 or 2.2 app away from causing problems.

    • True, but you have to put it into context. Apple has supported the prior hardware with software updates and is only just now dropping future upgrades for the original iPhone when it releases iPhone 4.0 this summer. While not every function from iPhone 3.x was available for the original iPhone, Apple did quite well by comparison to what’s going on with Android.

      Think about it this way: the original iPhone is nearly 3 years old and has gained most of the iPhone OS functions that came with upgrades. Right now you can buy Android 1.5, 1.6 or 2.1 devices – that’s a whole different level of platform fragmentation.

    • Today, a consumer can walk into AT&T or Verizon and buy a phone with any of Android 1.5,1.6, 2.0 or 2.1. Today a consumer can walk into AT&T and buy any iPhone and it will have the latest current iPhone OS. Big difference. iPhone 3G and 3GS hardware is different so user does not expect same results on the devices.

  7. Kevin, I agree with you here 100%. Fragmentation, for me, is an issue. On the other hand, it doesn’t actually seem to be an issue for the majority of people with Android OS phones.

    What bothers me most is reading about all these new apps coming out which I cannot run on my Sprint HTC Hero. Alas, I’m running Cupcake v1.5. I heard about Google Maps Turn-by-turn navigation – not available to me. I read about Google Gesture Search – not available to me. Firefox for Android is in beta now – of course – not available on Cupcake. Google Earth is out now – sorry, not for Cupcake.

    As much as I like HTC and SenseUI, I’m seriously thinking about jumping ship over to the Nexus One which gets timely OS updates. And I’m sure I won’t have to wait for v2.2 when it comes out in the next couple of months.

    Still waiting for 2.1 in New England,


  8. Jahan Khan Rashid

    Well I bought the latest Android phone a few weeks ago (sony xperia x10) which runs on The old Android 1.6. I’m a real tech junkie but I still did not find the operating system an issue, aslong as the hardware was excellent and the phone did what I wanted it to do, those were the main concerns. I played with the desire and the x10 for an hour in carphone warehouse before walking out with the x10, sure I knew the desire had multitouch and later operating system with flash browser and Google earth but Tue main thing was hardware capability.
    The staff did a real good job and for once were well up to speed on Android OS and the differences between them (they were debating amongst themselves which was the better device! Most of which said they needed a change from the iPhone). The only app I’ve come across that won’t work on my phone is Google earth.
    I’m more than happy with 1.6, sure upgraded software would be welcome but I also was aware of Sony Ericssons track record taking forever with firmware updates and its pretty much guaranteed the x10 will never officially see 2.2
    I’m on 1.6, the apps are great, every app I’ve tried works apart from beta apps on the market. I’m chuffed to bits with my outright purchase!
    Granted some will be disappointed the x10 won’t see updates.
    The bigger picture in my eyes is actually in apples yard. They are actually in the same boat and far worse imo.
    1 now there are a few versions of iPhone I hear a few complaints that a lot of recent games run at turtles pace on anything before the 3gs. They charge for ipod touch updates so that separates user experience and will make users know for sire that they are missing out and make them aware they have to pay extra ontop of there expensive purchase to keep up with the rest. Due to the iPhone insane high prices there’s a market out there that are only just buying the original iPhone second hand (not knowing the differences in model numbers) for at least £150 and will realise just how poor The device is compared to phones at the same price.
    Imo Apple is worse off as people will expect more from iPhone OS even on the original iPhone purely because of The high price of them. Punters will then see 3g/3gs users using apps that they can’t and it’ll burn them!

  9. Hmmm…

    As I stated before, “fragmentation” can arise naturally as companies attempt to support as much as possible legacy hardware. Fragmentation can also arise in cell phone markets as hardware manufacturers and carriers tweak devices for what they perceive as beneficial to themselves and their customers.

    As far as Google is concerned, you can’t argue with success. Fragmented they may be, their rapid rise in this space is nothing short of astonishing. My guess is they will pay the “fragmentation” as much lip service as necessary to satisfy the bloggesphere, the only ones that really see this as an issue, and do as little as possible otherwise.

    Of course, we’ve front row seats to the grand fragmentation “does it really matter” experiment: Windows Phone 7. Microsoft is about to go to war on fragmentation and it’s various manifestations like HTC’s Sense and Samsung’s TouchWiz. It’ll be interesting to see if Microsoft’s approach is a winner.

  10. Some interesting comments downplaying this as an issue. I’m trying to figure out why because the situation reminds me of the same challenges Microsoft faced with Windows Mobile 5 and 6.x. Maybe I just have too many “tech junkie” friends? :)

  11. Punjab Jihad Allah

    Nother reason why Android phones will not dominate the consumer market. It may be good for techies and some corp IT people but the vast majority of consumers out there cannot be bothered with multi distros and apps that don’t work right. Apple got it right in the mobile space, oh boy did they get it right.

  12. Yeah, I’m not buying it. Why would this be a problem for Android or Google? At least on this platform there is the chance of an upgrade. I’ve had a G1 since Oct-08 and have Android 1.6 — getting upset that there were newer versions available would make about as much sense as being upset with, say, an auto-maker because they kept coming out with new models. It may be a problem, but perhaps not a news-worthy one.

    • You’ve had your G1 since October 2008 and it runs Android 1.6. I understand why you don’t expect an upgrade to Android 2.x until you purchase a new handset — you bought the device 16 months ago.

      Now take an average consumer who may not know about different versions of Android. They walk into a store today and buy an Android 1.6 device, not realizing until later that it may never see newer versions of the OS, which are also available today.

      Let me use (and admittedly, over-simplify) your automobile example. If you bought a brand-new vehicle today and came home only to have your neighbor say, “Hey, nice 2006 Honda!” how would you feel?

      • Conquistador

        I’d feel like a person who:

        Didn’t know any better (whose job is it to educate/protect the consumer, exactly? Aren’t these people just as likely to buy a 14 month old laptop at Best Buy? Or buy the prior year car model just before the introduction of next year’s model in the Fall?)

      • Kevin, I completely agree with you. The fragmentation leads to confusion for end users, frustration for the developers. Android will follow the slow death of Microsoft Mobile 4.X/5.X/6.X. The only difference is, there are folks who didn’t know any better and keep buying older model phones. They might patronize Google for sometime. At present, there are some people who don’t know the difference between Droid and Droid Eris. Folks know about Droid but don’t know about Android. Folks know about HTC Hero but don’t know that the OS is the same as the Droid’s. Folks know about Nexus, but don’t know that it was made by HTC. They think Google made it. Its a big confusion out there. Only the readers of tech sites like GigaOM will know what version? spec ? and who made the Android Phone.

        Overall, the brand value of Android will go away in few years.

    • Great point. Mst people don’t care what OS their phone is running as long as it works.

      A coworker in my office is still using a Palm Treo with the pocket PC OS. At least I think it’s Pocket Pc. She was completely unaware of new phone OSes and features. Her Treo does what she wants it to do.

      I think just us techies care.

  13. And why do you think there aren’t that many 2.0 only apps out there? Because we devs are not going to target an Android version which leaves out 65% of Android devices. The fragmentation problem is a very real problem.

    • I don’t grasp what you’re saying. There aren’t many 2.0 only apps out, and you seem to agree. That means everything already works with everything. Then you state fragmentation is a problem. What is the issue if apps work with 2.0, 1.5, 1.6, etc. ???

      You claim to be a developer. Have you even looked at the Android SDK? It’s pretty plain and simple and it’s very difficult to make an app that doesn’t work with all versions of Android unless you specifically hard code it. Sure there are exceptions, but it’s usually due to the different hardware in the different phones, not the OS.

  14. As an “end user” that knows a bit about tech but not a tech junkie I don’t think the “fragmentation” of Android is an issue to most users. I think most buy their phone and expect it to work as is and don’t really give a second thought to upgrading the OS as long as it works properly from day one. The only real concern is if the Apps don’t work for your OS. . . end users will not understand that. They think, if it’s in the App Market then I should be able to use it. Kind of like being able to run Windows software on XP, Vista, and Win7–most don’t stop and think about the OS.

    Furthermore, if we equate Android to Windows we will notice that Windows has survived fragmentation rather well. I know people still using win95-98 and XP is still the most popular OS with two “upgrades” already out.

    As long as the device gets the job done for the person that purchased it most won’t think about the OS. . . and they will upgrade the phone within a few years and never be any wiser about the OS version they have or had, IMO ;)

    • I am pretty much thinking the same thing. Fragmentation seems to me a bit over-blown at this point. The whole idea of upgrading the software on your phone is a fairly recent concern, and I think the average customer still sees upgrading the hardware in 2-yr cycles as the way to go. I’m not saying it isn’t an issue, just that it’s the techies that are most caught up with it for the moment.

      • Conquistador

        Agreed. There are multiple versions of the Blackberry OS out there, people still buy them, and (gasp) – they still have a bigger Smartphone market share than anyone else.

        It seems to me that Kevin is arguing against the pace of innovation (both on the software/OS level), and the hardware level (HTC).

        This problem is not unique to smartphones – it’s all consumer electronics.

    • I’m not disagreeing with your opinion, but I’m an “end user” and have a different opinion. ;) Once Android 2.0 hit with the Droid, I immediately held off on an Android purchase. Many folks didn’t and now have a 1.5 or 1.6 device — and the end user difference between 1.x and 2.x is quite large. I ended up purchasing a Nexus One with Android 2.1 for the feature set and support for all Android apps, not just a subset.

      Another example — my sister, who isn’t a tech junkie at all, bought a Droid about 2 months ago. When I showed her the Nexus One with its refreshed interface, she was upset about her purchase. It worked out for her as the Droid saw the 2.1 upgrade, but for nearly 2/3rds of the Android handsets out there (per the AdMob data), they’ll likely never see Android 2.x, leaving customers out in the cold until they purchase new hardware. For some, it’s a not an issue of course, but for others, it is.

      • “For some, it’s a not an issue of course, but for others, it is.”

        I agree with that. My friend purchased a MyTouch with 1.6, I think. She loves it and doesn’t really care about the OS because the apps do what she needs to get done. Don’t even think she really knows about an upgrade lol or what version she has.

        While others will use the phone for all it’s worth and will always want the latest. And when you show off something newer to someone they will most certainly show some buyers remorse–that’s human nature, to want what everyone else has, the latest and greatest. But like the iPhone users are finding out. . . you can’t always get what you want ;)

      • Charles, I really think that your friend with the MyTouch is the majority of the market for consumer smartphones. A new hire in my office just got a Droid. Doesn’t know or care that the operating system is Android and sure as heck doesn’t care which version it is. He considered a Droid because of the cool add compaign. When he played with it in the store, it was easy to do the 4 or 5 things he wanted to do and he could get it to synch to his Gmail account. Done deal. Doesn’t care about OS upgrades as long as the thing works, which it does.

        I think that anyone who is getting their first iPhone from the used market isn’t gonna care to much about having the latest and greatest os or apps, as long as the phone does what they want it to do. As I said ina previous post, I have a friend that is still using a window powered Treo and is still thrilled with it.

        I really think the fragmentation issue won’t be that important or cause the downfall of Android. I think adroid will be around awhile because its cheap and Google wants it around.

        I personally don’t want an Android phone, but I do want an Android Tablet