How Android’s fragmentation issue is slowly receding

Android fragmentation has long been a hot topic and for good reason. Google(s goog) was iterating its mobile platform quickly; handset makers couldn’t keep up without investing more time, money, or both; and developers showed frustration with the many versions of Android and handset configurations. That led to various versions of Android in customers hands with different features, application support and no guarantees of future upgrades. But the situation is getting better.

Steps to fix the problem

About 18 months ago, I highlighted the problem of fragmentation and noted some steps Google was taking to alleviate it. Breaking out core Google applications from the Android platform has helped, because the updated software for Mail, YouTube and Maps, for example, are all available in the Android Market. Handset owners don’t have to wait for Android updates to get the latest version of these apps.

Google has also slowed down the pace of Android updates, now that it can. By that, I mean it had to initially mature Android quickly in order to compete — at least in terms of features — with Apple’s(s aapl) iOS. I’d say that for most people, Google has “caught up” to iOS in terms of the most used features. Sure there are still differences, but I’d argue that the ones that remain are fairly negligible. And where there are gaps in either mobile platform compared to the other, these can often be addressed through third-party software.

How bad is the problem now?

The slowed pace of updates has led to a majority of handset owners now running variations of Android 2.2 or 2.3: Google reports that of all Android devices visiting the Android Market over the two weeks prior to Sept.2, 81.9 percent run these two main versions, or a sub-version like 2.3.3. Android 1.5 and 1.6 only account for 2.8 percent of all Android devices, while there are still 13.3 percent running Android 2.1

I’m making a distinction and lumping Android 2.2, 2.3 and 2.3.3 together. Why? As a long-time daily Android user, Android 2.2 (Froyo) brought huge improvements to the platform in May of 2010. Android 2.3, and its subsequent minor point updates, haven’t added as much, or at least not much that users are complaining about.

Each version or sub-version of Android adds new APIs for developers to use, but even here, the last few Android updates have provided relatively little compared to versions from last year or earlier. Android 2.3.4, not shown yet in the data, is rolling out now to the Nexus S, but only includes bug fixes and no new APIs.

This approach of bundling Android 2.2, 2.3 and 2.3.3 is certainly arguable, and the first question I’d pose to any such argument is: “What key functions are you missing if you’re running Android 2.2 and not a higher version?” There are a few, but not too many of high impact to most consumers, in my opinion.

Carriers are the other factor

Google doesn’t dictate which phones launch with which version of Android, nor does it really have any say about existing handset upgrades. These decisions generally lie with network carriers, with the lone exceptions of the Google Nexus handsets; Google pushes updates directly to these smartphones as they see fit — a key reason I bought and still use a Nexus One.

In May, Google announced the Android Update Alliance to bridge the gap between Android releases and carrier updates. Key partners include Verizon(s vz), HTC, Samsung, Sprint(s s), Sony (s sne) Ericsson(s eric), LG, Motorola(s mmi), AT&T(s t) and Vodafone. (s vod) The group promises handset updates for up to 18 months after a phone is introduced. I think it’s bit early to assess the effort, but Justin Shapcott did just that in an insightful post at Android and Me. This chart, broken down by carrier, shows the current state of Update Alliance Members.

Based on this look, it’s clear the carriers have work to do: They need to nudge their handset partners to invest the effort into creating updates and then, in turn, the carriers need to test and push those updates out. However, more phones are appearing with Android 2.3 or better out of the box, which will help.

Is it as bad as it was?

While the fragmentation issue looks a little dire in the above graphic, I still think it’s getting better, but perhaps that’s because I don’t make much of a distinction between Android 2.2 and any subsequent version. The situation also took two to three years to create; it’s not going to magically disappear over time. But as I look back, I do see less of an issue due to the small steps Google has been taking to address it.

An additional effort has much to do with Android tablets as well as phones. Ice Cream Sandwich, the next major version of Android, will unify the platform between both device types, which should ease future problems as Android continues to mature.

Unfortunately, fragmentation will never be completely addressed. Android will always be fragmented by definition if any handset maker can use it in any way they see fit. Various screen sizes, hardware component choices, development budgets and target price points affect Android devices and the versions of Android that they run.

The only way to eliminate the problem is for Google to either cease licensing the platform and build its own devices, like Apple(s aapl), or for the Android-maker to be very specific in terms of hardware requirements, like Microsoft(s msft). I don’t expect either of those things to happen. And that’s OK, because the fragmentation issue is less of a problem than it was 18 months ago.