OS Updates and Fragmentation

While Android OEMs have continually shown a tendency to not support their handsets with updates, either promptly or at all, Apple have just announced that the 3GS will receive its 3rd major update with iOS 6. The fact that only 7% of devices accessing the Play Store are on ICS helps to demonstrate that fragmentation is a real issue for Android, and there are continual calls for Google to take action to improve the situation. What people seemed to have overlooked is the action that Google have already taken.

“We just released a new version of the Gmail app in Android Market, so Gmail updates aren’t tied to Android version releases anymore. Now you can get new Gmail stuff faster without having to wait for system updates.”

The above is a quote taken from a post on the Gmail Blog way back in September 2010. Control of Android updates ultimately lies with the OEMS and (sigh) the carriers. Given the very nature of Android, controlling the update procedure for all devices seems like it may be beyond any single party. Therefore Google took the path of least resistance and separated the updating of apps from the upgrading of the OS.

Something that struck me about Apple’s iOS 6 announcement last week was how many of the new features weren’t, strictly speaking, really OS features at all, just updates for core Apple apps. To take five examples:

Mail – inline attachments and VIP mailboxes

Siri Updates – sports scores, Open Table, new languages

Facetime over cellular

Safari – iCloud tabs, offline reading list and landscape fullscreen mode

Maps – turn by turn navigation

I think it’s fairly safe to say that these are the kind of features which Google regularly pumps out in its various app updates. Two recent examples that spring to mind are the introduction of Priority inbox to the Gmail app and the release of Chrome for Android with cloud syncing.

For Android these are fairy routine updates, released regularly and with little fanfare. For Apple, they are marquee features of  each new version of iOS, given specific presentation time by Scott Forstall. Neither approach is right or wrong of couse. That said, I definitely prefer Google’s, for the simple fact that I’m a geek and love continually trying out new things. Having to wait a year between updates of core apps isn’t something I enjoy doing with my iPad, but I can see how it helps to build a sense of excitement for each new version of iOS.

In any case the point is that while OS fragmentation is a real issue for Android, it doesn’t stand in the way of adding new features for Apps. So not having ICS doesn’t necessarily preclude a device from receiving valuable updates. There are still obvious exceptions to this approach, Chrome for Android is ICS only, but then the whole point of OS updates is to add new features and APIs that weren’t previously available. Therefore at some point, older OS support will reach its limit. That said, ICS only apps are the exception and most work happily across the last few releases.

In contrast, devices that receive iOS updates don’t always get all the new features, very often for seemingly no legitimate reason. I’m still wondering why my iPad 2 doesn’t have Siri and the iPhone 4 turn by turn navigation. It’s hard to believe that it would  be due to a lack of power as both devices are still extremely capable. More likely, it’s Apple’s attempt at planned obsolescence, designed to get you to upgrade to newer hardware.

Again, it’s a different approach and while support for iOS updates is generally very strong, support for features may actually be deprecated in comparison to Android. That’s not to say that Android doesn’t have issues, I’m just looking at the topic from a different angle. While Google still has plenty of work to do, the modular nature of Android and the separation of its core apps from the OS itself are an elegant intermediate solution.