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Android fragmentation: An app developer's worst nightmare?

When you write an app for Apple’s iOS there’s no ambiguity. To say the operating system and its distribution are tightly controlled is an understatement. It’s Apple’s way or the highway. Not so with Android. Fragmentation and lack of corresponding offerings from device makers is out of control. It’s a complete mess for developers.

How bad is it? It’s bad enough for Salesforce to declare that it will support only Samsung Galaxy and Google Nexus devices. That’s pretty drastic and should send a clear and frightening message to all that play in the Android space to get their acts in sync. Indeed, Android fragmentation is hurting its case for widespread enterprise adoption, a problem that iOS does not face.

The problem is years in the making. With each maker of devices that run Android able to tweak the user interface as they see fit, and their power as to when — or even if — to launch any new version, the permutations in terms of the operating system, its many versions, and the cornucopia of devices on which it runs are likely in the thousands. It’s not something app developers should have to put up with.

Consider some recent research from Statista. For the period May 2 to May 9, 2016, the distribution of Android versions that accessed the Google Play store looked like this: KitKat 4.4, 32.5%; Lollipop 5.1, 19.4%; Lollipop 5.0, 16.2%; Jelly Bean 4.1.x, 7.2%; Jelly Bean 4.3, 2.9%; and smaller numbers from Gingerbread, Ice Cream Sandwich, and Froyo.

Yes, it’s a mess. It’s a lot of different versions being used actively and concurrently. What really sticks out is that the largest group, KitKat, is two generations behind the most-recent Android version.

For the very same weeklong period, the breakdown of iOS devices that accessed the Apple App store looked like this: iOS 9, 84%; iOS 8, 11%, all earlier versions, 5%. (That last group includes my iPod touch 4th generation, which ceased getting updates after iOS 6.1.3.) As long as your app is compatible with iOS 8, you’ve got 95% of the market covered.

This is especially problematic because developers are writing for a base of billions of devices — 7.1 billion mobile phones in 2015 worldwide heading to 8.6 billion in 2021, according to Ericsson. That doesn’t include tablets, which adds nearly another two billion. This does contrast with legacy corporate applications that were intended to run on only one mainframe computer.

Fragmentation is an old story

OS fragmentation isn’t anything new. Many years ago, at a trade event at the New York Marriott Marquis, between mouthfuls of baby lamb chops and jumbo shrimp, I asked Bill Gates about his perception of the then-current state of Unix and what it meant for developers. “Unix is a hundred different things that don’t talk to each other,” he said.

The sentiment, if not the exact number, was right, of course. With Hewlett-Packard’s HP-UX, IBM’s AIX, Silicon Graphics’ IRIX, Sun Microsystems’ Solaris, Compaq’s Tru64, Apple’s A/ux, AT&T’s System V, SCO’s UnixWare, and others all in competition with each other, writing an application that ran well on all platforms bordered on impossibility. Add the messy ownership wars with Unix Systems Labs and Novell into the mix, and it gets even uglier.

As a mobile app developer, what are the roadblocks you run into when developing for Android? Does the proliferation of different versions from different vendors create problems? And in comparison, what is your experience with iOS? Share your thoughts; we’d like to hear from you.

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