Google last week unveiled its newest Android operating system with several striking novel features; however, the company seems to lack effort in finding a solution to an issue that has relentlessly hounded its mobile operating system: fragmentation.
Just as the search giant made widely known the impending arrival of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, most Android device owners still run on the relatively outdated Android 2.3 Gingerbread. This version already is three major releases after the former. Based on figures provided by Google, only 7 percent of the entire Android platform market runs on the current version, Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), which arrived October of last year.
Without official upgrades for older devices, app innovations in the newest Android operating system will not arrive to majority of Android device owners. Likewise, developers – the platform’s life-giving force, have no other option but to test their applications across multiple Android versions and devices.
As of now, Google shares an Android OS update with companies, chip and smartphone makers in particular, after the work is ready for release. The OEMs will ensure that their hardware is compatible and fine-tuned for the mobile OS. Wireless carriers then offer the finished products to consumers.
Platform Development Kit (PDK)
Last week, Google introduced a platform development kit (PDK) during its keynote speech at its I/O developers conference in San Francisco. Audiences warmly welcomed the good news with applause. The PDK will render Android smartphone manufacturers a preview of future Android releases. The sneak preview releases will give them easier time to update their phones with the newest Android operating system.
Chip and phone makers will receive Android updates earlier than consumers with help from the PDK prior to a public release. This new approach will give companies longer development and testing times, and deliver updates to consumer faster.
Android OS Fragmentation
Developers, however, are not convinced in the company’s response to OS fragmentation during Google I/O 2012. They believe the search giant must solve this issue first so developers can reach a larger audience.
An Android team fireside chat at the event saw developers throw questions here and there regarding OS fragmentation. Google only answered a few.
A certain developer asked how the company planned to pitch Jelly Bean to Android users way faster than it was for ICS. A Google employee said it would provide free smartphones and tablets to developers at the event.
Another developer asked Google on last year’s announcement of the Android Alliance, which would make sure that smartphones receive updates regularly for at least one and a half years, at the same event. The company only said that the coalition revolved around OEMs’ dedication to deliver relevant updates to smartphones faster.
It was more or less a frivolous response. Android engineering director Dave Burke said, “What we said last year is that we would make sure devices got supported for 18 months, but it hasn’t been 18 months since last year so we can’t prove or disprove if it’s working or not.”
Google currently confronts a hard to tackle problem. Phone/tablet makers and wireless carriers tailor the open-source Android OS in such a way that users who have similar versions still differ due to different customizations by service providers. Unfortunately, both OEMs and carriers have no intentions to provide Android updates, unless prodded by users or Google itself, and only motivate consumers to purchase a new mobile device with the newest Android operating system. Most companies, if not all, always prefer a “revenue first, customer service later” approach.
Google’s PDK will not relieve fragmentation factors anytime soon. The company told developers the kit only intends to deliver the latest version of the OS to carriers before a public release, so that development time for customizations will drop.
Google could follow Apple’s scheduled iOS update as one method to solve fragmentation. It could start by making an Android version that is more coherent for all devices and carriers. The company could then offer an update with the latest Android OS directly from its servers. Then again, OEMs and mobile carriers would still want to customize it, as if they own the software.
Bottom line for Google is to choose which between the Android developer community and its hardware partners will vent frustrations.
In the end, developers in attendance apparently accepted the fact that fragmentation is an added risk of open-source software development.