"Android fragmentation" has become something of a tech buzzphrase, as Google’s smartphone operating system gets more popular and more device manufacturers start using it in different ways. What is it like to design an experience for a fragmented app ecosystem? The makers of OpenSignalMaps, an Android app that gauges local cell phone signal strength, wanted to know what they were dealing with. So they spent six months gathering data on their users’ devices, and then parsed it into some rather jaw-dropping infographics. Sure, you knew Android was fragmented. But did you think it looked like this?
These are the 3,997 different Android devices that OpenSignalMaps users experienced the app with. How many devices do iOS developers have to worry about? Somewhere between four and eight (if you include older-model iPads, iPhones and iPod Touches). Even crazier: Out of those nearly 4,000 Android devices, "a staggering 1,363 device models appear only once in our database," the developers write. "Some examples of these solitary devices include: the Concorde Tab (a Hungarian 10.1 inch device), the Lemon P1 (a dual SIM Indian phone), the Energy Tablet i724 (a Spanish Tablet aimed at home entertainment), the EBEST E68, the MASTONE W18."
App designers want to create an ideal experience for every user. But how on earth can anyone design for 4,000 distinct devices, including obscure Hungarian tablets? Here’s another demoralizing graph, showing the relative sizes of all the different displays of OpenSignalMaps’ user base:
A recent report by Gartner states that Android has captured over half of the planet’s smartphone OS marketshare. I asked James Robinson, co-founder and lead developer of OpenSignalMaps, straight out: If developers and designers want to make software for the maximum number of people (especially in the developing world), will they simply have to put up with designing and redesigning endlessly in this fragmented landscape? His answer: "Yes."
But Robinson doesn’t think this necessarily calls for a sad trombone. "One of the joys of developing for Android is you have no idea who’ll end up using your app," he says. "So the problem—or perhaps opportunity—is getting bigger, but the tools are getting sharper too. I’ve been impressed by Google’s commitment to providing better simulators for devices, all of which are free."
And just because 4,000 Android devices are out there doesn’t mean that each one translates to a distinctly unique user experience (thank god). Even that mess of differing display sizes collapses into a slightly more manageable number when weighted by popularity:
"Every time someone tells us that our app is not at all working on their device, we try to get it working, no matter how exotic the device is," Robinson says. "On the other hand, if the request is just to improve the experience a bit we’ll only take it seriously if the device is common or likely to become popular. If you target about five resolutions you can capture a good chunk of the market."
Robinson admits that iOS developers and designers have it easier, but says the Android marketshare speaks for itself. "It’s my belief that for most people in developing countries, an Android tablet will be their first computer, and developers need to keep that in mind," he says. In other words: Fragmentation is the future. If you want to be a part of designing that future, you’d better stop complaining and learn how to deal with it.