Android’s fragmentation: whose problem is it?

The topic of fragmentation within the Android ecosystem continually pops up from time to time. For evangelists of opposing platforms (and I probably count as one of those people), they like to bring up the issue as a point of showing how inconsistent the platform is and how it drags down the user experience.

Let’s assume for the sake of this article that Android, as a platform, is very fragmented. But we’re not going to assume that fragmentation is inherently bad for all people. It may in fact be very good for some, so let’s just leave that issue to the side for now.

A blog post making its way around the internets today comes from Michael DeGusta at theunderstament. I’m including his chart below for reference.

Android & iPhone Update History by Michael DeGusta

What Michael contests is that it comes down to an issue of support and that Apple is crushing it in this area and thus also driving customer loyalty (is that a shock to anyone that Apple would be driving loyalty?):

It appears to be a widely held viewpoint that there’s no incentive for smartphone manufacturers to update the OS: because manufacturers don’t make any money after the hardware sale, they want you to buy another phone as soon as possible. If that’s really the case, the phone manufacturers are spectacularly dumb: ignoring the 2 year contract cycle & abandoning your users isn’t going to engender much loyalty when they do buy a new phone.

…In other words, Apple’s way of getting you to buy a new phone is to make you really happy with your current one, whereas apparently Android phone makers think they can get you to buy a new phone by making you really unhappy with your current one.

It’s a fair argument, but I don’t know that it’s altogether there. People talk about the Android platform as this singular unified thing, when I actually believe that it is quite the opposite. The Android ecosystem is actually fragmented by design. Google created it and is licensing it for that expressed purpose that it can simply be chopped up 15 ways from Sunday in any manner you like. What we often fail to remember is that you and me, as consumers, are not Android’s (and by proxy Google’s) customers. We are merely another part of Android’s complex ecosystem of cash generation, but we don’t generate the cash from buying our phones or using our minutes, rather we generate Android’s cash by searching and utilizing Google’s wide array of free, ad-supported services.

The beauty of Android’s ecosystem is in it’s flexibility: it can be just about anything to any manufacturer, but if you want to create an iPhone like experience, a manufacturer would have to create the entire experience on their own. Amazon and Barnes & Noble are prime examples of companies trying to do that now with their locked down Nook Color and Kindle Fire.

But now let’s return to the previous idea of whether fragmentation is distinctly a good or bad thing and who it impacts. For Google, even though they act like they care, I’m not sure why they would. Android is clearly the highest selling mobile platform with no imminent threat of that changing anytime soon. They seem most concerned about what pundits say, but it’s hard to say whether they actually care about changing the culture or not when the results speak for themselves. Now let’s look at Android’s partners, the manufacturers (Samsung, LG, Motorola, HTC, etc.) and carriers (Verizon, at&t, T-Mobile, Sprint, etc.). Each manufacturer is producing multiple phones for multiple carriers. The phones vary widely (again, another benefit of the platform) in both features and price, yet also now we’re finding in operating system version as well. I’m guessing the profit margins for the manufacturers differ widely as well and with so much internal Android competition happening, new phones being introduced and launched virtually each month, there is a palpable pressure for a high frequency of releases.

From a manufacturer’s point of view, when all of your effort is on more devices, more carriers and placating each carrier with their own customization (if they don’t placate the carrier, someone else most likely will, which makes Android differentiation tricky), why would these companies care about long-term support? What’s in it for them? Customer switching costs would be quite low since there is a variety of Android handsets on each carrier from multiple manufacturers. How do these companies differentiate themselves?

The answer is they can’t. They’ve effectively turned the majority of the ecosystem into a commodity for the average consumer. I would bet yesterday’s donuts that the best selling Android handsets right now are not big name high priced ones, but they’re the “free on contract” devices that always seem like the best deal at the time (even though we know it’s not in the long run of the cost of the service). These devices are commodities, quickly to be replaced with the latest hotness coming next week. It was bound to happen once the market matured enough and the effect will only accelerate going forward.

So the question is, does this really matter to consumers that the manufacturers won’t support their device a year after it’s launched? While those of us who already get great support say yes, my guess is that the majority of average consumers simply don’t care. That’s the effect of a commoditized market.