Instead of the usual silly argument about how Android has mauled Apple into irrelevance by having a larger market share, a recent piece at ZDNet actually discusses the real problem with Google’s platform.
No, it’s not the fact that lots of mobile handset makers release cheap junk running Android. It’s more about the open source nature of the OS and the serious downsides that make it work against the interests of customers. It comes into play whenever Google releases an OS upgrade, or even a critical security fix.
It’s all about fragmentation.
Apple made a smart move early on, which was to take full responsibility for pushing OS updates to customers. That way, the carrier never gets involved, and thus Apple can ensure that all customers are getting a fair shake. The very moment an update is available, you can download it for yourself.
What this means is that, three months before iOS 10 is set to be released, over 85% of iOS users, iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, are running some version of iOS 9. That percentage varies by a few percent each year, but it’s pretty consistent. Assuming your hardware is compatible, you will probably be running the newest OS before long. That’s true even though some of you might wait for a few releases and bug fixes before diving in.
At each Android I/O conference, Google will demonstrate a forthcoming Android upgrade. But after a year, the number of people who have installed that update barely reaches 10% of the user base, sometimes less. The most popular version of Android, version 5 Lollipop, with a 38.17% share (according to Mixpanel Trends), was released on November 12, 2014. The next most popular version is 4.4 KitKat, released in 2013, with a 26.64% share. Last year’s release, version 6 Marshmallow, remains in the “Other” category.
Worse, most Android users will never, ever, have the chance to download such an upgrade on their device. The main reason is the flawed method of pushing those updates. Unless you have a pure Nexus device, and few do, you don’t receive upgrades direct from Google, except for apps in the Google Play store. Instead, the handset maker receives the updates. It’s up to them to merge the release with their own customizations and junkware before sending it on to the carrier, who might add its own changes.
By being open source and ceding responsibility to its partners to manage updates, Google is ignoring the needs of customers. Customers should have a right to upgrade their mobile handsets to the latest supported version, especially when a security problem needs to be fixed. So there are existing problems with existing handsets, vulnerabilities that could cause havoc for Android users.
So ZDNet is suggesting that Google follow Apple’s lead and give up on the open source nonsense, and make Android proprietary. They can then arrange to feed updates directly. Handset makers might still be able to add customizations strictly by apps and not with operating system modifications, and thus not interfere with the process. I suppose they’d have to make new agreements with Google, and if they are still committed to the platform, that shouldn’t be so big a deal.
Besides, how many Android smartphone makers actually contribute anything valuable to the platform? Well, perhaps Samsung’s Split Screen multitasking feature, which has been adapted by Apple to provide Split View on the most powerful iPhones and iPads. Much of Samsung’s additions are junk. Consider the Tilt to Scroll feature that debuted on Galaxy handsets a couple of years back. It doesn’t even work most of the time, or didn’t when I tried it on a Galaxy S5.
Google has been promising to resolve the fragmentation problem for several years without any success. Unless something drastic is done, it will probably never happen. Maybe that’s all right in the current state of the market, but aside from Apple and, to a lesser extent Samsung, handset makers aren’t making much in the way of profits. Why even bother?
I suppose that making Android proprietary might convince some companies to focus on forking an OS from the open source version. Some Asian handset makers have already taken that route. In addition, Samsung has been making efforts to move to another open source mobile OS, Tizen, but not so enthusiastically. Other than Galaxy Gear smartwatches and a handful of cheaper handsets, Samsung continues to support Android. If you take a casual look, Tizen doesn’t seem all that different from Android, or at least it seems to have a similar inspiration.
Of course, if each handset maker used its own OS, customers would be less inclined to switch, in part because their investment in apps would be wasted. They’d have to start from scratch, hoping to find similar software. As it stands, there are actually more Android apps than iOS, but developers don’t do near as well financially. Many of those apps are knock-offs, or free ad-laden junk that is barely usable. With handset makers giving up on Android, the situation would only get worse — for all of them.
Of course, if Google convinces Samsung, it’s largest partner, to accept a proprietary version of Android that they cannot modify, other manufacturers will, for the most part, fall into line. The situation as it stands remains largely unworkable, and I’m surprised more people aren’t just giving up and moving to iOS, or at least someone else’s proprietary platform, such as the rapidly failing Windows 10 Phone.