Google’s Android operating system is a lot like C-3PO at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. It’s a robot that has been blasted apart into a million pieces, and the only self-contained, functional bit is being carried around on the back of a big, hairy Wookiee that can tear the arms off of anyone in the room.
That’s the takeaway from a series of charts released by Open Signal, a company that has two popular apps available for measuring your smartphone reception: one on Android’s Google Play market, and one on the iOS App Store. By polling devices that are running the app, Open Signal can see what the most common models, operating systems, and screen sizes are being used across Google and Apple’s product ecosystems. But if there’s one thing that these infographics make clear, it’s that Android has a huge problem: It’s fragmented.
When people say an operating system is fragmented, what they mean is that the variables a developer needs to account for to make their apps work on that OS have gotten out of control. Any operating system that runs on more than one device is going to be at least a little bit fragmented, but some are more fragmented than others.
On iOS, for example, an app developer doesn’t need to account for too many variables. Apple has only ever made 15 iOS devices, with a handful of resolutions, clock speeds, and screen sizes to support. Not only that, but an overwhelming majority of iOS users—95%!—is running the latest version of the operating system, iOS 6. It’s this internal cohesion to iOS that makes it so attractive to devs. Most app developers either fly solo or are part of very small teams, so just by testing their app on a small handful of devices running the latest version of iOS, they can reach 95% of the App Store market.
But look at Open Signal’s Android charts. Android’s cohesion hasn’t just been shattered, more than a quarter of it has been blasted to atoms. There are literally thousands of devices any prospective Android developer has to account for. Nearly a third of those devices are still running a two-and-a-half-year-old operating system riddled with bugs and security holes. In fact, only 5.6% of all Android devices are running the most recent and stable version of the operating system, Jelly Bean.
But it gets even worse. Apple only asks iOS developers to support four screen sizes and four resolutions. But take a gander at Android! Any developer who wants to make an app for the Google Play store needs to test their UI across dozens upon dozens of different screen sizes and resolutions. And unbelievably, it’s even more complicated than that, because many of the major Android device makers like Samsung and HTC slap their own custom skins on top of Android. These superfluous skins change many of the default graphical elements of the Android UI, so not only does an Android developer need to test their app across an entire multiverse of screen sizes and resolutions, but they then need to test each of those against Samsung’s TouchWiz skin, HTC’s Sense skin, and so on.
Speaking of Samsung, that’s the big, hairy Wookiee we were talking about earlier. The Korean electronics maker is hauling around Android on its back, accounting for almost 50% of all Samsung devices sold. But even if a developer targets Samsung exclusively, there are still hundreds of different Samdroid devices to try to account for! Some are phones! Some are tablets! Some are phablets! Some run TouchWiz! Some don’t! Some are on the latest version of Android! Some are stuck on Gingerbread! If Samsung is Android’s Wookiee, it’s a schizophrenic one.
A good word for any Android developer to know is Sisyphean. Open Signal says that "the Android operating system is the most fragmented it has ever been." In truth, you could write that statement anew every single day. Every tiny shard that splinters off Android is another variable to account for, another problem for developers to solve. Combine that with the fact that some piracy rates for Android are as high as 95% and no wonder the average app developer can’t make a buck off of Android: While Google Play surpassed app downloads by 10% for the first time last quarter, the iOS App Store brings in 230% more revenue.
Bizarrely, Open Signal has a rather rosy outlook on this data. "Despite the problems, fragmentation also has a great number of benefits—for both developers and users," they write. "The availability of cheap Android phones (rarely running the most recent version) means that they have a much greater global reach than iOS, so app developers have a wider audience to build for."
That’s one way to look at it. The other is that Android developers are bleeding out in a pit of broken glass, and every new Android device is another bottle broken in the pile.
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