When Google released its monthly Android user stats at the end of January, showing 90 per cent of owners were touting version 2.x of the OS, it looked as if fragmentation was finally on its way out. The release of a slew of phones rocking Android 2.3 at Mobile World Congress just a few weeks later appeared to confirm as much, even if some that were still packing Android 2.2 slipped through the net.
But last week’s revelation that malware had infected upwards of 260,000 Android phones thanks to around 58 malicious apps found in Android Market, has thrown the whole issue of fragmentation back into sharp focus. Having rolled out a software update to fix the issue, Google has also confirmed that the bug, which collected personal and hardware information, only affected devices with Android 2.2.2 or lower. That’s still a significant number if January’s figures are anything to go by. A massive 41 per cent still had Android 2.1 Eclair at that point.
This virus puts pressure on Google from two fronts. Firstly, it shows that Android Market is susceptible to sustained attack and that its open nature can lead to serious problems for Android owners. This is an issue the search giant has been dealing with in a heavy-handed manner in recent weeks, as it looks to bin apps that breach its terms of service and tighten-up regulations on admission to its app store.
The second is the issue of unleashing updates at regular intervals, while ensuring OEMs are able to get them onto their devices much faster. Custom skins hamper this, but Google cannot prevent manufacturers from using them. The only way it can stop this is by making vanilla Android so good that there’s no need to slather it with social networking smarts. It’s gone some way to achieving this with Android Honeycomb, but for now that remains a tablet-only affair.
Hardware limitations also mean that older phones can’t handle the numerous upgrades it releases. This is understandable. People have phones for two years on contract, but can’t expect them to run at top capacity for that entire time period. So, what can Google do? Realistically, what it’s done in patching up Android and stating that updates will be paced more effectively, is all it can do at this stage.
Android’s open nature is part of its huge success. But what we’re seeing with the malware problem and the Market’s tendency towards buggy add-ons, is that unless Google changes its whole open source philosophy these problems won’t go away.
It’s all or nothing, so it seems despite optimism in early 2011, fragmentation is once again a fact of life for Android owners.