Comment: Android’s fragmentation also happens to be its core strength
When you hear “Android fragmentation,” we often conjure up the negatives, but there is more to the mobile OS forks than slightly slow software updates. Unlike Android, iOS has an end-to-end experience controlled by Apple from start to finish. That means that because of iOS, we sometimes wrongly see fragmentation as a dirty word. The thing is, it is actually quite the opposite on the Android side of the fence.
In terms of experience and features, fragmentation within Android can, and should, be considered a very good thing. Note how I say “experience and features,” as there are some trade-offs with this fragmentation. Phones not having the latest security patches is one of many problems that we face as enthusiasts and owners.
But what we do have is new features, true software, and hardware innovation, and a wealth of choice as a result of this third-party OEM fragmentation. So with that out of the way, here are five solid reasons why you should consider this fragmentation as one of the core strengths of Android.
For the most part, skinned or forked versions of Android change the entire mobile OS landscape by being so different from Google’s own vision. There is no denying that as a Pixel owner you get a ton of benefits for sticking with Google. Even so, with Android Q on the very cusp of release, you might have noticed that many features have existed elsewhere first.
Samsung originally led the “feature-set” charge in the early days of Android. And it appears to have worked, as they have definitely reaped the benefits quite extensively. They were often the first to add all kinds of features that we now take for granted in Android wholesale.
It was this willingness to experiment early on, and then the confidence to push these through overblown marketing campaigns, that we have seen the South Korean tech giant cement its position at the top of the totem pole globally. It’s because of this that features are a big part of what separates OEMs from one another in 2019.
Take for example the native screen recorder. It has been available on some Huawei and Xiaomi phones for almost two years. Native, customizable dark themes have been available on OnePlus phones for a while. Gestures exist on the other side of the iOS-Android divide, but again, have been on other third-party skins for a little while, too — although they differ slightly for how they’ve been added to Q.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are almost too many to list. If you want an unrivaled number of sheer features or before they are available anywhere else, then in all likelihood you won’t be looking at a Pixel.
Software and hardware innovation
Related to this, I personally think that we are seeing the real innovation — for the most part at least — coming from third parties. At the moment Huawei appears to be leading the fail-first-fail-forward bunch. They do so by offering almost unrivaled hardware and then double stacking the software with tons of features — some good, some downright terrible.
Things like reverse wireless charging could be considered a gimmick, yet we are seeing brands adopt the feature on their devices even after a year. LG introduced hands-free controls on their own LG G8 ThinQ way back at MWC. And it’s worth noting that LG wasn’t even the first to add a hands-free control feature; they just took the ball a couple yards further on. With the Soli chip inside the upcoming Pixel 4, we could see yet more innovation that has been technically pushed by someone else first.
I haven’t even mentioned foldable devices. Google might help prepare OEMs for folding smartphones, but the onus is on companies like Samsung and Huawei to make them, then make them work — but granted, that part hasn’t gone so well so far.
Because one size doesn’t fit all, it is understandable why brands want to tweak the software. It enables them to tailor the experience to their own internal vision of how we interact with the hardware. But by keeping the core OS intact, they get all of the important Google Play Services and many base features right out of the gate. This is usually the underlying principle of why we see so many Android forks and builds.
In truth, this is just part of the equation. OEMs like to gather data on their customers, too. This is why we end up seeing tons of duplicate apps and services. These are still as annoying as they are terrible in most regards. That said, these make for a more unified experience that ties the hardware and software together more effectively. There is also a unique selling point aspect to unique apps and services, Bixby or Xiaomi’s MiFit platforms being prime examples.
The differentiation between one device and the next becomes much more apparent, too. As nice as Android One feels and performs, it would make every smartphone so similar that there would be no reason to switch from one brand to the next. Each little tweak is designed to entice and attract, and some OEMs do better than others, but it definitely helps to prevent the industry from becoming stale — a criticism often leveled at the iPhone.
OEMs opting for any of Google’s versions of Android also means giving away some element of control over the core usability experience of your fans and buyers. You make the hardware, but you can’t significantly alter the software. It does, however, mean that Android will run well on your device internals. Having a tailored experience ensures that you get the very best experience right out of the box.
The Pixel benefits
By allowing everyone else to tinker, enhance, and edit, Google is ensuring that they are able to learn from the mistakes of others rather than make them. Take Night Sight, for example; Google was not the first to introduce a long exposure night photography mode, but they have arguably the best implementation.
Instead, Google appears to be following Apple’s lead with Android. Allow someone else to lead the way before taking the principles, adding some Google magic and making probably the best night photography mode available on any smartphone.
This method allows others to experiment and “fail first” before Google picks up the pieces and produces or improves upon the original software or hardware feature. The difference is usually in how “integrated” into the rest of the OS these repurposed features tend to be once they reach Pixel phones.
Again, Apple follows a similar mantra and, to be honest, it really works for them. So in part, your Pixel phone benefits massively with each new full Android release. Google can allow the industry to lead them down the path and then overtake them with ease. They, too, can build unique features and selling points that suit their vision of the smartphone.
Android is rightly lauded for its wealth of features and customization. Having so many options at your fingertips and out of the box is part of why it is so popular. It also became the de facto choice mobile OS for third-party manufacturers when smartphones exploded onto the market almost a decade ago. The thing is, this dominant version of Android just isn’t the Google version.
The look and feel also differs quite drastically from one manufacturer to the next. This variation gives you the ability to choose what suits you best. Want reverse wireless charging? Pick up the P30 Pro, Galaxy S10, or Mate 20 Pro. Want a cheap phone that performs well and is guaranteed quick software and security updates? Pick up a Nokia. For the most part, people will choose based upon hardware, but you get certain software benefits from all brands on the market.
Much of the core hardware is very similar on most high-end flagship phones, the real key difference is how that is handled by the software. If you want an Android phone, you have literally unrivaled choice. Maybe not as much as in the past, but definitely more than the competition.
Why forked Android matters
Fragmentation in most contexts within Android is often attributed to version numbers and recent builds. As far as I’m concerned though, if every single Android phone ran the same version of the OS, then the entire picture would rightly be considered more of a “problem.”
Whether you agree or not, some level of differentiation is needed to ensure that we as fans and consumers get the best possible mobile experience. Fragmentation really does have benefits, and we genuinely see these across devices and even OSs — especially as time passes and tech progresses.
Google has three versions of Android that it has to update, maintain, and push to devices and device manufacturers. The existence of Android One, Android Go, and the Pixel-exclusive Android muddy the “fragmentation” water a little. Whether you agree or not, Stock Android just doesn’t exist like it may have in the past.
Maybe we don’t initially see the benefits of OS fragmentation, but we almost certainly do so further down the line once the good portions have been sifted from the pointless or poorly implemented. For every feature we call a gimmick or stupid, there are changes and inclusions that actually make a real difference to our everyday smartphone usage.
And if all else fails or you simply don’t like all of these extra flavors, then you can always go with the Pixel. Google has developed the Pixel line to be a really good phone right across the board. It’s true that most people don’t buy a device for a single feature.
That said, if you can offer them a cohesive experience that has “enough” features, then you are bound to win people over. While we do need OEMs to do more to keep our phones up to date with security, no matter how you look at it, fragmentation is in many ways actually one of Android’s true core strengths.