Fragmentation, OS upgrades: Do people even care?

Microsoft’s decision last week to not offer an upgrade path from Windows Phone 7.5 (currently in the market) to Windows Phone 8 opened a can of worms most thought only applied to Android. The F-word: fragmentation. But do the few million people using Nokia Lumias even care? Do those 200 million-plus people using Android phones care?

“Fragmentation is busy killing Android.” It has become one of those facts that are widely believed and repeated in the web’s echo chamber. Worldwide, Android remains in the lead when it comes to market share but there are indications that activation rates have peaked and are slowing. Google has admitted, repeatedly, that fragmentation is a problem. The experience with Android may be indicative of what’s in store for Windows Phone (and BlackBerry when it launches BB10).

As of June 1, the latest version of the OS, Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0), was running on 7.1% of all Android devices. This, for an operating system released in October 2011?!

  • 65% of users remain on Gingerbread (2.3), now 18 months old;
  • 19.1% on Froyo, nearly two years old; and
  • Five percent on Eclair, nearly three years old.

Needing developers to build for 3997 different devices is Google’s worst nightmare. The API framework changes (and limitations) as these versions have been released are significant and there is a direct correlation to the availability of quality and popular mobile apps available for Android.

At a roundtable discussion on gaming at May’s BlackBerry World in Orlando, game publishers were intensely critical of Android without any provocation. Many indicated they had or were planning to drop support for their Android games. Some who were preparing to develop for the platform had shelved their plans.

Today, big game publishers are more willing to develop for largely untested (and unreleased) Windows Phone and BlackBerry 10 platforms than Android. But, to be fair, it’s not all about fragmentation. There are application support shortcomings (like refund mechanisms and responsibility) in Google’s Play store. And publishers have discovered this the hard way.

Aside from the developer support, handset manufacturers are slow to offer upgrade paths for Android devices in the market. The vast majority of existing devices are practically not upgradeable (and won’t ever be). Device makers blame hardware limitations, which is often the case. But there are other constraints too. Why would any of the Android phone makers invest time and money on complicated upgrade testing for phones they’ve already sold when they can spend it on developing new phones and services?

It doesn’t seem the average customer even cares. Do they?

They don’t know what Gingerbread is. Or Android 4.0. Or Jelly Bean. In the same way they probably don’t know what iOS 5.1 is. Or iOS 6.

And they couldn’t care. They care that they’ve received an “update available” notification. And they care what an upgrade would actually mean for them, i.e. what can it do that the existing (old) software can’t.

This extends to when they make a decision to purchase or upgrade as well.

When the average customer walks into a mobile store, they largely end up getting the phone someone they know or the salesperson recommends to them. Think about this. This is the way it’s always worked. Even since the days of the Nokia 5110! Advertising by the different brands and networks merely provides options to them. They’ll sift through choices based on features as well as affordability and then ask around.

But the real manifestation of “fragmentation” is when a user who has bought a phone running a version of Android doesn’t understand why they cannot get a specific app for it. And there’s additional fragmentation because Samsung and HTC (and others) are running their own app stores independent of Android/Google.

Which store do I get my app from? Is it only in the Samsung store? Or Google Play? Does it work on my Galaxy S II? Or is it only for S III?

The Windows Phone 7.5 dead-end news from last week presents the same problem to developers and customers. Analysts have decided the value of all current Windows Phone handsets on sale (primarily Nokia’s Lumia devices) is close to zero, when it comes to upgradeability. But again, does the average Joe Bloggs care?

Maybe the average consumer is used to throwing away their phone and upgrading completely (hardware and software) every two years?



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