By Barry Levine / Top Tech News. Updated May 17, 2012.
"Android" and "fragmentation" are two terms that go together so often, it's sometimes hard to remember that Android is supposed to be a single platform. But how fragmented is Android? An app provider is now trying to answer that question with a study and some images.
The company, Open Signal, has been logging over the last six months new Android devices that have downloaded its OpenSignalMaps, which recommends the best network in an area. The data shows the model, brand, API level, and screen sizes for more than 680,000 devices. The result: 3,997 distinct devices and 599 brands.
Samsung Galaxy S II
Open Signal noted that the actual number of different devices is probably somewhat lower, since those devices with custom ROMs report back their identities differently than other devices.
Open Signal created a Device Model Map of its data, and another of Brands. Each contains larger squares representing the most popular devices and tiny ones standing in for the obscure ones. The resulting image looks like a distorted map of Manhattan, dominated by a few larger squares and then breaking into tiny slivers in one corner.
The most popular Android device in their survey is the Samsung Galaxy S II, with more than 61,000 users of Open Signal's app. The obscure devices represented by tiny slivers include the Concorde Tab from Hungary, the Lemon P1 in India, and the Energy Tablet i724 in Spain.
On the brand front, Samsung won again, representing about 40 percent of the total, or about 270,000 devices. Others include HTC, Sony Ericsson, Motorola, Verizon, Sprint, Huawei, KDDI, T-Mobile, Vodafone, Google, Cingular, and more -- nearly 600 in all.
There are also a variety of API levels, which are determined by their Android version. Open Signal said that API levels "have become more fragmented over time," which, they added, "seems natural" since older Android versions stay around.
The many API levels are challenging for developers, especially since the diversity is increasing. Open Signal said that the top two Android versions accounted for 90 percent when they conducted this survey a year ago. Now, they only account for about 75 percent.
The plus side of fragmentation is diversity and reach. Open Signal said that the many Android manufacturers and devices have allowed the OS to quickly reach markets in 195 countries, including a strong presence in developing countries.
The downside is that the variety of API levels and screen sizes is likely to get worse, the company said. It noted that Google has introduced Android components that can make it easier to target a variety of screen sizes.
We asked Avi Greengart, an analyst with Current Analysis, if Android fragmentation could be helped by a plan reported in this week's Wall Street Journal.
New Rollout Model
In that story, the Journal said Google planned to change its rollout of new Android versions so that as many as five manufacturers would get the new version and "lead devices" at once, followed some months later with a rollout of that version to others. That contrasts with the current set-up, where Google works with one manufacturer first.
Greengart said the current rollout model contributes to the fragmentation, because developers have to target leading devices supporting a variety of versions. "Targeting the top five would be better," he said, adding that it "still means playing favorites."
But, Greengart noted, even if Google were to avoid playing any favorites at all, fragmentation is still an issue because the OS is open source, and various manufacturers can modify it as they wish.