Is Google Bringing Order to a Fragmented Android Ecosystem?

To quote Paul Graham of Y Combinator, “Google doesn’t have a lot of weaknesses.” If we had to point to one of its vulnerabilities, we could note that the Android platform has not been tightly under its control.

While fragmentation due to hardware factors is inevitable given the sheer diversity of Android manufacturers, the more pronounced fragmentation issue for Google has been OS version skew. Long vendor lead times and slow updates have lead to an ecosystem where a considerable number of users are running an instance of the OS that is out of date by one or more major releases.

Android fragmentation forces mobile app developers to deal with the complexities of several OS levels at once and support inconsistent implementations of app features. This can make it harder to optimize mobile application performance across the Android landscape.

However, Google seems to have engineered a elegant solution by giving primacy to Google Play Services as the hub for new Android capabilities. The company has effectively released a “silent” update of the OS and has altered the way in which Android will evolve from here on out.

The Roots the Android Fragmentation

To understand Android version fragmentation, it is essential to look at what Android really signifies as a technology. It is far from being a monolithic OS such as Windows or iOS, and it is not neatly analogous to a Linux distro. Rather, it has always been best to think of Android as a mobile-specific tweak of the Linux kernel and a collection of APIs that are geared towards giving vendors the ability to create a distinct flavor of the system. Despite its progression of formal versions, there has never been one true “Android.”

Google Play Services May Be the New Heart of the Platform

While Apple’s unveiling of iOS 7 stressed its sweeping significance for the mobile world, the recent Google I/O keynote brought revelations that were subtle yet shattering. Rather than announcing a new Android version as many expected, Google focused its keynote on Google Play Services.

While Google Play Services debuted in September 2012, Google has amplified and solidified its role. It delivers to Android applications the types of features that users would have had to wait months or more to see in the past via full OS updates. These include: synched notifications across devices, geofencing, activity recognition, and single sign-on. These wide-ranging features will reach Android users that are on version 2.2 and up, the minimum version that supports Google Play Services. Google has effectively managed to upgrade users across a wide range of older versions without requiring them to install a more recent OS. More importantly, it has been able to do so while sidestepping OEMs entirely. This is significant because as we noted in an earlier posting, Android users upgrade OS version at a much slower pace than iOS users.

What Does the Future Hold for Android?

The Android operating system remains open source, but Google Play Services has given the company ultimate leverage over the application level-features that its users will enjoy. Proper Android OS upgrades, of course, will still be important, but they will pertain more to details under the hood. The pattern of smaller increments that has been the norm with version 4.0 and up should continue into the near future.

In fact, Google recently revealed Android 4.4 (Kit Kat), which will reach devices this fall. While the new version brings notable updates, the majority of its buzz has centered on the decision to cross-brand with a major confectioner, with little attention brought to its features.

Photo Source: [Mark Guim/Flickr]

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