Earlier this quarter, Google announced the latest update to their mobile operating system (Android version 4.4). This update, better known as “KitKat”, offers minimal functional changes from 4.3 (Jelly Bean) but makes significant improvements in legacy device compatibility and performance. There is a lot of speculation whether KitKat was developed to challenge the perceived fragmentation problem that Android is facing.
Similar to the way Windows runs on all sorts of computers and servers from many different manufacturers, the Android OS is designed to be used across different OEM hardware. This flexibility and openness has led to a fragmentation issue, as there are over 10,000 unique Android devices running eight different versions of the operating system. In addition to those eight OS versions, OEMs and telecom carriers layer their customizations, or skins, on top of the standard Android software. This equates to hundreds, if not thousands of unique firmware versions circulating in the market, making updates very challenging. To pile on these challenges, many Android devices have been designed for low cost markets, meaning lower hardware specifications and the technical inability to run the latest OS versions. KitKat is the first Android release that addresses these challenges head-on. Designed to run on older (or low-cost) devices with only 512mb of RAM, Android can now be updated on devices that were previously thought to be end-of-life and can be launched on new budget devices in emerging markets.
Eating Candy to Lose Weight
Part of the secret to KitKat’s design lies in the way the OS was re-architected. Google’s head of engineering Dave Burke said “We were kind of joking that, when I started, the first thing that I was working on was Project Butter to make the system smoother. The thing is, butter puts on weight. So then I did Project Svelte to lose weight.” As a result of this project, KitKat has a smaller footprint, can run at a lower resolution, and demands only two processors rather than four. In addition to Project Svelte, Google continues to remove components from the OS and give them new life as stand-alone apps on Google Play. Making KitKat work on low-cost or older hardware will hopefully enable more devices to be running the latest OS.
However, even with KitKat working on the latest devices, Android fragmentation is here to stay:
- Most telecom operators would rather steer their customers to a new device. The cost associated with testing new firmware on legacy devices on their networks is prohibitive. In addition, selling a new device often generates additional revenue and locks customers into a contract.
- While OEMs are reducing the number of devices released per year, it is still prohibitive to test new firmware across all the different models, regions, and networks. Furthermore, the OEMs need to satisfy their shareholders and build market share by selling new devices.
- With new versions of the Android OS being released about twice per year, along with the separation of the software and hardware stack (Google software and OEM hardware), device manufacturers often don’t have access to the firmware until it is officially released. This leads to a constant game of cat and mouse.
The Candy Diet Can Pay Off
Regardless of the obstacles causing fragmentation, KitKat is a strong step in the right direction. Two things still need to happen:
- Google must continue to modularize their OS by pushing more features of Android through Google Play updates.
- OEMs must continue to thin out their product lines, allowing them to more easily push out updates to all devices.
As these two paths cross, there will be a dramatic change in the fragmentation picture, whereas today over a quarter of active Android phones are still running versions of the OS two or more years old. With continued collaboration between Google, the OEMs, and telecom operators, the time is right to resolve Android device fragmentation.
image Credit: The Verge
image Credit: Google Android
This post was co-authored by Benjamin Topolski