Open-source Android, rapid OS development, and carrier lock-in have led to fragmentation in Android's mobile market. With iOS 6, Apple is beginning to experience some of the same.
Fragmentation is not good for OS makers, users of mobile devices, or developers. It starts with developers: if they are not able to test on all or most of the devices and models in the hands of the potential customer base, their software may exhibit problems that won't show up until after wide release, causing untold aggravation and expense. And if operating system versions in that customer base are also fragmented, developers may need to forego certain advanced features that they would otherwise have liked to exploit.
Android suffers from a built-in tendency to fragment because (1) carriers, not Google, control the software on customers' phones and they have little or no incentive to upgrade; and (2) Google releases new versions of the open-source Android OS so rapidly.
Here is a quick look at fragmentation by brand (left) and device model (right) in the Android ecosystem, adapted from Mashable and current as of May.
Fragmentation of OS versions is potentially a more serious concern for developers, particularly when Google and/or Apple introduce advanced features in their latest version and developers have to wait for the user base to catch up before they can incorporate those advances into their apps.
Here is Apple's version of the comparative fragmentation of operating-system versions in Android vs. iOS, taken from Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference last June and published in Silicon Alley Insider:
As SAI noted, "Over 80 percent of Apple's users have the best possible OS Apple can make. Only 7 percent have the best possible OS Google can make." Since this chart was put together, the share of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich jumped to 16 percent -- largely on the strength of new phones like the Samsung Galaxy S III on which Ice Cream Sandwich is pre-installed -- but the point of the slide remains valid.
Ironically, the version of iOS that Apple was introducing at that WWDC, iOS 6, is going to trigger the first significant fragmentation in Apple's market. iOS 6 offers over 200 new features, according to Apple, and some of the most important ones will only be available when iOS 6 runs on newer hardware -- specifically, hardware with an A5 processor. As Boy Genius Report noted, "While the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 will be compatible with iOS 6, both devices will get a version of the software that forgoes key features" such as 3D flyover and voice navigation, both of which require an A5.
Mobile developers are going to have to begin worrying about some of the same fragmentation issues, at least on the OS level, on iOS that they have been dealing with on Android.