Google refutes criticism about Android fragmentation

Android engineer calls fear of fragmentation 'a red herring' and details efforts to ensure compatibility on the mobile phone platform

An Android engineering team member earlier this week lashed out at critics who spread fears of fragmentation in the Android mobile phone market

In a blog post, Dan Morrill, a member of the engineering team for the Google-led Android project, also detailed efforts to ensure compatibility on the Android software platform, which was unveiled in November 2007 and now features more than 60 models.  

[ Google previously has played down Android incompatibility concerns. | Stay up on tech news and reviews from your smartphone at infoworldmobile.com. ] ]

"Literally before the close of business on the same day we announced Android (4:46pm to be precise), I saw the first article about Android 'fragmentation.' The first day wasn't even over yet and the press had already decided that Android would have a 'fragmentation' problem," Morrill said. The latest upgrade, Android 2.2,  was unveiled last month.

Fragmentation, Morrill said, either was not defined or everyone had their own definition.

"Some people use it to mean too many mobile operating systems; others to refer to optional APIs causing inconsistent platform implementations; still others use it to refer to 'locked down' devices or even to the existence of multiple versions of the software at the same time. I've even seen it used to refer to the existence of different UI skins. Most of these definitions don't even have any impact on whether apps can run," Morrill exclaimed.

"'Fragmentation' is a bogeyman, a red herring, a story you tell to frighten junior developers. Yawn," said Morrill. Just this spring, an analyst report again stressed the risks of fragmentation in the Android realm.

Morrill acknowledged there are multiple versions of Android and that some devices without the latest software cannot run all applications. But Morrill said Android is 100-percent forward-compatible -- applications written properly for older versions also run on the newest versions, Morrill said.

"The choice is in app developers' hands as to whether they want to live on the bleeding edge for the flashiest features or stay on older versions for the largest possible audience. And in the long term, as the mobile industry gets more accustomed to the idea of upgradeable phone software, more and more devices will be upgraded," said Morrill.

Morrill also recognized there are challenges in ensuring compatibility among Android devices, with compatibility defined as the ability of a device to properly run applications written with the Android SDK. Issues can affect compatibility such as bugs and missing components. Added or altered APIs also can present a problem, Morrill said.

"These are things that I spend my time preventing," he said.

Compatibility is made a strict prerequisite for access to the Android Market for Android applications, Morrill said. Google, he noted, also offers the Android compatibility program, which defines technical details for the platform and provides tools to ensure that applications run on a variety of devices,

To address missing components or altered APIs, a Compatibility Definition Document (CDD) "defines in gory detail exactly what is expected of Android devices," said Morrill. A Compatibility Test Suite, meanwhile, addresses bugs, he said.

"We've been operating this compatibility process with our OEMs for over a year now and it's largely responsible for those 60-plus device models being interoperable," Morrill said. Although no process is ever perfect, OEMs are motivated to be compatible, he said.

The CDD over time will change to help Android succeed, Morrill said.

Android actually is a project of the Open Handset Alliance, of which Google is the most prominent member.

This story, "Google refutes criticism about Android fragmentation," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com.

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