In terms of mobile devices, “fragmentation” is what occurs when multiple versions of an operating system are all operating at the same time. It becomes an issue as developers tend to write new applications (or revise old applications) to take advantage of new abilities in newer versions of an operating system. Developers try to keep their programs active for some time, but they reach a point where they just cannot support old operating systems any longer.
This is nothing new…some people are still running Windows XP, even though there are programs that will no longer run on those systems. The upcoming version of Mac OS 10.8 (Mountain Lion) is going to both outdate some hardware (2008 and older) and software; and previous versions of the OS have outdated programs that were once “key accessories” for Mac computers.
We’ve experienced fragmentation on iOS, too. We ended up buying a new (used) iPod Touch for my son, as the 2nd Generation device was no longer supported by new programs that we wanted him to be able to use.
So although fragmentation happens with all computing devices, Android mobile devices are the direct target of the word most of the time. This is partially because Android is an operating system that is provided to manufacturers, and many manufacturers never intend to update a device on the market to a newer operating system. Manufacturers want you to buy a new device in order to have the most modern system. As a result, you can go into a store today and purchase a brand new Android device with an operating system anywhere between 2.2 and 4.0. Meanwhile, if you go to an Apple provider, every new device comes with iOS 5.
Can you imagine being in a school setting where you know that the new device you purchase will probably never have the ability to have an updated operating system? This is yet another reason why Android devices–as the system exists today–will not be the choice of schools (see my previous post about the imaginary $100 tablet that would replace the iPad as the choice for schools).
It makes total sense that as hardware improves, the operating system should improve to take advantage of the hardware. What doesn’t make sense (for the buyer) is to buy an older device–usually at a much reduced cost–that can never be updated. And for the developer, you have the challenge of writing programs that take advantage of new features, but can still run on “old” operating systems (even though the device may be brand new). A developer can only handle writing for fragmentation for so long–regardless of the platform (iOS, Android, PC, or Mac). Because of the initial fragmentation from the date of purchase, this is a unique problem for Android that can’t be compared to anything else on the market.
On a positive note, there are a number of programmers whose hobby is to provide newer operating systems for older devices, check out the work at Cyanogenmod, if you are interested (www.rootzwiki.com). This is how my HP TouchPad (not an Android Device) is running Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) before any manufacturer has even released a ICS tablet.
At any rate, John Gruber (daringfireball.net) wrote a short review of another article on the issue of Android fragmentation at http://pxldot.com/post/18281312362/android-measuring-stick. If you have any interest in the issue of fragmentation, read this article. The article isn’t critical of Android, it just talks about fragmentation. In comparison, the trend seems to be that 90% of iOS users update to the latest version of the software (if their device is capable) within 6 months of its release. Sadly, most Android users are locked out of that ability to update.