By Aldo Panessidi
One of the biggest problems users have with choosing an Android phone over another platform is figuring out which OS is going to give the best performance with which type of phone. A number of companies, including OpenSignalMaps, have been trying to quantify the problem by analyzing the amount of fragmentation in the market.
Using data from 681,900 devices that downloaded OpenSignalMaps software over the past six months, they found 3,997 distinct Android devices running its app. This is a great chart showing the spread:
Each rectangle represents a unique Android device. The big green rectangle in the upper left is the Samsung Galaxy S II - by far the most popular Android phone in the study.
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This shows an incredible number of Android version/display resolution combinations. Analysts at OpenSignalMaps predict that number will continue to grow. Their report states: “Android has shown commitment to make it easier to target multiple screen sizes – by introducing the (perhaps ironically named) fragments APIs in 2011 which makes it easier to turn view elements into modules.”
OpenSignalMaps also took a look at the version of Android each device was running:
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More than half of all Android phones are still running version 2.3 Gingerbread, and Gingerbread is all of 18 months old. The newest version of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich, barely shows on the chart.
Since Google’s Android is free and open for use by any hardware manufacturer, there are thousands of different devices running the OS. “Android fragmentation” is the term given to the spread of different versions of the Android OS across all devices.
So what does this mean? It’s a really good situation if you want more choice in your hardware. But it's really bad if you want timely software updates or a guarantee the latest and greatest apps will work on your device.
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The OpenSignalMaps report concluded that the benefits of building apps for Android far outweigh the drawbacks. ”One of the joys of developing for Android is you have no idea who’ll end up using your app. With many devices under $100 unsubsidized, Android phones and tablets are able to reach a market that can’t afford netbooks. For the majority of the world’s population smartphones (and not computers) will be the must-have devices.”
In case you were wondering where Apple fits in, they don’t have this problem. iOS only runs on one phone, the iPhone, and the latest version still supports the three-year-old iPhone 3GS. Microsoft is following the Apple model somewhat. They require Windows Phone manufacturers meet strict requirements to guarantee that updates go through to all devices in a timely fashion.
Developer Michael DeGusta created the visualization of what he called Android’s fragmented update history. He wrote, “Ever since the iPhone turned every smartphone into a blank slate, the value of a phone is largely derived from the software it can run and how well the phone can run it. When you’re making a 2 year commitment to a device, it’d be nice to have some way to tell if the software was going to be remotely current in a year or, heck, even a month.”