Google seems to be pretty powerful lately with a $1.1 billion acquisition of a piece of the struggling Taiwanese handset maker HTC and the release of a highly anticipated sequel to 2016’s critically acclaimed Pixel smartphone. These successes, however, do little to solve Android’s largest problem: fragmentation.
Fragmentation describes the almost innumerable mass of varying devices and software that fits under the umbrella of Android. This problem is unique to Android because it is open-source software, giving anyone the ability to use and add things to the software for free. Due to ease of access, however, many companies have made their own versions of Android, much like Samsung’s Touchwiz or HTC’s Sense.
These flavors, or skins differ significantly from each other and allow for the variance of some user interface design. For example, Touchwiz doesn’t have the same user interface or design as stock Android, even though it has the same Android 7.0 Nougat software.
Companies creating its own skins isn’t the problem; it’s their support of bringing timely software and security updates to its own skins.
Software updates are important because they bring new features, optimizations and security for devices and can breathe new life into older ones. A 2015 Digital Trends article states that it can take anywhere from six months to a year for some phones to get software updates due to the software having to go through testing with the phone’s manufacturer and the wireless carrier.
Less popular devices sometimes never see these software updates, frustrating some Android users. The problem hasn’t gotten much better, as evident by the fact that Samsung’s latest flagship, the Galaxy S8, is still without the Android software update to version 8.0 Oreo, even though it has been almost two months since Oreo was released.
The Galaxy S8 is one of Samsung’s flagship phones, so this an example of a manufacturer actually trying to get software updates to a phone. This lackadaisical attitude toward updates leads to old software being used by large chunks of the population, potentially leaving these users more vulnerable to various exploits, providing more fuel to the opinion that Android is dinky and outdated in design.
The breakdown of running software has marshmallow and lollipop with the most. Nougat and KitKat have the next biggest chunks.
As of Oct. 2, 82 percent of devices are running software that is more than a year old (Marshmallow, Lollipop, KitKat, Ice Cream Sandwich, and Gingerbread) and only .2 percent of devices are running the latest software (Oreo).
While Android has been struggling to get devices updated to the second newest OS edition, 89 percent of Apple devices were running iOS 10 — the newest software at the time — in September.
Google is currently trying to combat the fragmentation problem. The latest software release, Android 8.0 Oreo, has a feature called Project Treble that makes it easier for the existing hardware of the device to accept the new software by removing silicon manufacturers from the update equation.
However, device manufacturers still have to build their own user interface and wireless carriers will still have to test the update.
The main thing that slows the updates are the carriers and device manufacturers, so Google should take more responsibility in dealing with them. Device manufacturers and wireless carriers should be required to give a majority of their devices timely software and security updates.
Google needs to tame the wild ecosystem around Android for it to turn to a more mature operating system that can provide users with quality experiences across the board. Otherwise, Android users will keep leaving for Apple’s simple, streamlined software environment.