Does Google care about Android fragmentation?
Not now—but it should.
Apple held its annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) this week and as always, it took the opportunity to dig into Google’s Android fragmentation problem. Apple claims that 81% of supported devices have been updated to the company’s latest software, iOS 11. Android, on the other hand, has a feeble 5.7% install rate for its latest 8.0 and 8.1 “Oreo” operating system.
These numbers are telling of the different levels of control that Apple and Google have over their software. While Apple can control every aspect of its software, Android is open-source, which means anyone can create an operating system built on the Android frame. This means companies like Samsung, HTC, Sony, and even Amazon all have their own versions of Android, and they’re slow to update to the latest software. Currently, only Google-made phones like the Pixel 2 and the Pixel 2 XL get immediate Android updates.
Android version distribution as of May 7, 2018.
But does this fragmentation even matter? According to Statista, Android currently owns 85.9% of the global smartphone market share while Apple commanded 14.1% in Q1 2018. Some have argued that Google doesn’t care about fragmentation because its mission with Android is to get as many people online as possible. But what happens when everyone is online? While Android fragmentation hasn’t impacted Android adoption so far, I argue that fragmentation will be a huge threat to Android retention if Google can’t provide a consistent user experience across devices. Here’s why.
Fragmentation is a long-term threat
Since Android updates are at the mercy of phone OEMs and carriers, consumers will have widely different user experiences from device to device. If you are excited to jump on Google Daydream for mobile VR, you are most likely out of luck, as only a handful of Android phones are supported. And if you are excited to use picture-in-picture mode on your Android phone, sorry—that requires Oreo, which has an install base of around 6%, as mentioned before.
To consumers, the term “Android” has lost its meaning, and it’s not surprising that Google is trying to kill the brand. Android can mean a variety of things because so many variations and versions run on different devices. Amazon’s Kindle tablets technically run on Android, but it doesn’t include the Google Play Store.
While Google and its fans may talk about all of the features that were on Android first, how many people actually had access to those features? For example, Google announced “digital wellbeing” features of the upcoming Android P update, but the historically slow rollout of Android updates means most users won’t see these features for months. “While Android P may give Google a paper lead over Apple for a period of time, if Apple does a corresponding digital wellbeing update in iOS 12, the effect and the reach of Apple’s update will dwarf the impact of Google’s update,” writes Vlad Savov on The Verge. And lo and behold, Apple announced its own digital wellbeing features this week at WWDC, which many more iPhone users will have access to when iOS 12 drops sometime this fall. Additionally, Apple is bringing iOS 12 to phones and tablets that were released in 2013, making it the most widely available iOS update ever.
Overseas, the situation gets even more complicated. Not only is Android itself fragmented, but the Android app stores are as well. Because Google Play isn’t allowed in China, phone makers have created their own app stores. Taking a step back, it may be more accurate to say that the ubiquitous WeChat is the predominant mobile OS in China rather than Android.
Android fragmentation is a huge issue for developers as well. The biggest challenge is developing for such a wide variety of devices on different hardware and software versions. A few weeks ago, Twitter announced it will get its own in-app emojis because many users are unable to see the Android ones in the app due to fragmentation.
What’s more is that Android users are driving much less profit for developers. According to App Annie, iOS devices make up only 30% of the world’s app downloads, but they make up over 66% of the world’s consumer spend, though these numbers don’t take into account third-party Android app stores in China.
If developers don’t like creating apps for Android and consumers get sick of not having access to its latest features, Google will face a huge challenge keeping users on the platform. Apple is hammering Google on data privacy and speedy updates and it’s nailing the premium smartphone market—and if Google doesn’t address fragmentation soon, it could see its mobile dominance slip away.
What Google is doing to combat fragmentation
Slowly, we’ve seen Google react to Android fragmentation. The company has gone to lengths to separate core functions of Android by turning them into apps that can be easily updated. This means you won’t have to wait for the latest Android update to get the improved Phone or Contacts app.
Google also announced Project Treble, which basically separates the core Android operating system from vendor-specific code. This will theoretically allow for faster Android updates, though we’ve yet to see any phones utilize Project Treble. The real test will come with the release of Android P. However, Project Treble support isn’t required, so that’s why phones like the OnePlus 5T have the latest version of Android (8.1) without support for Project Treble.
It’s clear that Google sees Android fragmentation as a problem, but it’s a mystery as to how eager the company is to solve it. Its operating system commands a huge global market share, giving the company little incentive to tackle the issue for now. But if Google doesn’t act soon, many Android users may jump to iOS—and stay there.