Beautiful charts highlight the diversity and troubles of the Android ecosystem
Around here, we don't really go in for the term "fragmentation", because Apple (somewhat hypocritically) has seen to it that the term only has negative connotations; and, while Android does have its share of issues, not all problems can be put under the single banner of "fragmentation". So, while we don't agree with OpenSignal's title for its survey data, we do love the beautiful charts the data has created showing the diversity of the Android ecosystem, and we do appreciate that OpenSignal has tried to bring back some positive meanings to the "f-word".
On the Android version side of things, the logical conclusion of that diversity above comes out in an issue that can be troubling for developers, and one that Google tracks on a monthly basis: platform distribution. While Android has the developer tools to combat the multitude of screen sizes, display resolutions, and hardware configurations that you'll find, it has yet to get a handle on making developers update the software more reliably. Low-end handsets (which have boosted the number of different handsets hugely) often run older versions of Android, either because the hardware can't handle the newest version, or the manufacturer simply doesn't want to spend the resources to develop the update. Android 4.x is steadily taking over the ecosystem, and there have been rumors that Android 5.0 will be focused on bringing low-end handsets to the newest API level. Of course, despite the outrage that is heard on this topic, the platform distribution is not really a problem for users, but rather an issue for developers. The only users who know and care that their device hasn't gotten a software update are the very vocal minority in our own readership. The vast majority of users don't know and don't care what Android version is on their device, because the apps still work just fine. And, if you are in that vocal minority, you are partially to blame for your own situation, because you have the added knowledge of how the ecosystem works, and still chose a device that is less likely to receive an update than say a Nexus device.
OpenSignal has performed a survey of 682,000 devices in the Android world, and the numbers are pretty crazy. According to the data, the diversity in the Android ecosystem has exploded in the past year. When OpenSignal performed the same survey last year, using the same number of devices, it found 3,997 distinct Android devices; but, this year the data has shown 11,868 distinct devices. Of course, despite that Samsung is still the king of the castle and has been found to be the manufacturer behind 47.5% of all Android devices.
(note: sorry the chart keys get cut off, our page layout has a limit, and the keys on the charts don't scale like the charts themselves.)
And, you can see when you switch between last year's results and this year's that Samsung has pushed out all competition from the top spots on a per device basis. Last year, HTC had a few entries near the top of the list with its Desire, EVO, and Sensation handsets; but, this year HTC has dropped off and the only devices that come close to Samsung are Nexus devices (one of which was made by Samsung anyway.) When looking at the combined device numbers, it is even more apparent how far ahead Samsung is compared to the competition.
Lastly, the data shows the variety of screen sizes available in both Android and iOS (interactive versions of these charts are at the source). As you would expect, the screen sizes are far more varied in Android (the thicker the line, the more frequent the screen size), and there are only a few different screen sizes in the Apple world. Of course, as we've talked about before, just showing charts like this doesn't explain the difference that Android has responsive design, and so apps can automatically adapt to any screen size; whereas, iOS does not have responsive design tools, and requires developers to create assets that will fit each screen size individually.
Both approaches have their trade-offs. In the Android world, you may get apps that scale to fit a larger screen, but are still not optimized for that larger screen. And, on iOS you can have apps that are tagged as "universal", but simply run in a scaled iPhone layout on an iPad. Or, in both cases, you may simply have developers who don't bother to make tablet versions at all, and will actively remove tablet compatibility from Android apps that would otherwise scale to fit.
Google's plan was to make sure Android was on as many devices as possible, and it certainly is succeeding on that metric. The developer tools continue to mature and allow developers to make sure their apps work on as many of those devices as possible, although what features are accessible can be a sticking point because of the varying API levels on the devices. Google is continuing to try to persuade manufacturers to push updates and bring devices up to the newest version of Android, but persuasion only goes so far, and Google is not the type of company to force manufacturers to comply.
Ultimately, this makes for an ecosystem rife with choice, but one where users may have to put in a bit more work to understand the benefits and drawbacks of choosing certain devices, if that user really cares about having the newest OS version at all times. As you might expect from such a diverse ecosystem, the choice is out there, if you know what you're looking for.
title image source: Animoca