10/07/2015 8:38 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Android's Hardware Fragmentation Problem Hurts

Android 3 teaser
Android 3 teaser

Android has come a long way from being a geeky, customisable mobile operating system to the OS of choice for more than 80 percent of the mobile world. Along that path, Google made big feature & performance improvements to attain this dominance, and also displayed design polish and finesse with Android 5.0 Lollipop. A persistent problem along these past 7 years for Android has been software fragmentation -- thanks to the variety of hardware it powers, its open source nature and manufacturers' desire to use a customized version of Android as a selling point. So, all the strides that Google made up to this point with Android 5.0 can be benefitted today by just 12 percent of Android users.

But there's another kind of fragmentation that prevents Android users from making simple buying decisions -- hardware fragmentation. Before 2007, phones were forcibly slotted into different categories to cater to different use cases. The most popular example I can think of is Sony's long-running CyberShot and Walkman series of phones -- where the former had industry-leading imaging capabilities and the latter was bundled with pro-music additions like good earphones and a dedicated music button. BlackBerry phones were often pitted as the premier choice for the business folk, so much so that a big marketing campaign was needed to break away from that mould. Nokia too had their phones split into easily identifiable segments -- the E series for the business class, XpressMusic for young music lovers, and the popular 'PureView' branding for their camera-excellent phones.

A change in this mindset was brought by the iPhone in 2007 -- with every successive release Apple brought out a single phone that could do everything well -- imaging, multimedia, work, play -- all while looking classy. And that seemed like the most logical thing to do; why should a person who wants a great camera or a reasonably sized phone be stuck with inferior specifications? Cases in point: the Galaxy K Zoom versus the Galaxy S5, or the HTC One mini 2 versus the HTC One M8. Thankfully, this trend has slowed down, probably since none of these made-for-a-purpose devices ever achieved true commercial success. But hardware fragmentation continues to raise its ugly head even today.

In 2015, take the instance of the Samsung Galaxy S6 and the Galaxy S6 Active. The former is packaged in beautiful aluminum-glass construction, while the latter looks like something the military would strap on their arms. But there's nothing more irritating than knowing that the S6 Active has a considerably bigger battery, something every Galaxy S6 user would have loved to have. But if you were considering buying the S6 Active, then bear in mind that you won't get that handy fingerprint sensor. Also, the S6 Active is currently sold in the US via AT&T, so you can't even buy one if you're living anywhere else.

Then take a look at the HTC One M9 and the One M9+ -- the One M9 was launched in the West and comes with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 chip, a Full HD display and a 20 megapixel camera. The One M9+ that launched for the Eastern audiences, has a top-line Mediatek chip, a Quad HD display, a 20 megapixel camera with a 2MP depth sensor and a fingerprint scanner. Imagine the horror, that you can have the truly nifty fingerprint scanner and a pixel dense display, only if you're living on this side of the world.

These variants also worsen the software fragmentation issue. For example, the Galaxy S6 may well receive the latest updates first, as it is a more widely selling phone than the S6 Active. In many parts of the world, the S6 is already updating to Android 5.1.1 from 5.0.2, whereas there is no news about when the S6 Active will get it. To cite another instance, the Motorola Droid Turbo, that was launched in the US earlier than the Moto Turbo, that launched in India with Android 5.0 out of the box, only recently got the Android 5.1 (it was running Android 4.4 KitKat all this while).

All this is super confusing for a user wanting to buy an Android phone today. And this is probably one of the contributors to Apple iPhone's industry-leading customer retention. Android phones in all probability will continue selling well, since most people don't care about software updates or feature parity as passionately as some of us do. Another reason why Android phones will continue to sell well is because there will seemingly never be an iPhone that costs $200, unless it's four generations old. But one thing is certain, Android's fragmentation problem isn't going away anytime soon, if it ever will.