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Google Play Services to Beat Android Fragmentation

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For developers, fragmentation within the Android eco-system is often called the most serious time and cost factor when developing mobile applications which have to work across a wide number of different devices. As shown in a report by OpenSignal, fragmentation can be broken down in two categories:

  • Hardware fragmentation: Nearly 12.000 different Android devices were tracked in 2013 which bring various screen sizes and hardware capabilities.
  • Software fragmentation: Currently, 8 versions of the Android operating system are in use. For example, API versions 2.3.3 to 2.3.7, released in early 2011, still have a share of about 30% of the tracked devices.
In contrast, there exists only a very small number of different iOS devices with a limited variety of screen sizes. Furthermore, 95% of all tracked devices run the newest iOS version 6.

As outlined in an article on Ars Technica by Ron Amadeo, Google now seems to be addressing the problem of software fragmentation.

According to the article, the fragmentation of Android operating system versions is mostly caused by the underlying process of how to roll out new OS versions: After a new Android version is finished, it is delivered to OEMs where the OEM specific UI is then ported to the new version. After that, it is rolled out to carriers and finally delivered over-the-air to end users. This process usually takes several month and since it also takes a lot of effort, less popular devices probably don't get updates at all.

As Android updates roll out slowly, Google more and more uses an application called Google Play Services to install new functionality on devices:

Play Services has system-level powers, but it's updatable. It's part of the Google apps package, so it's not open source. OEMs are not allowed to modify it, making it completely under Google's control. Play Services basically acts as a shim between the normal apps and the installed Android OS. Right now Play Services handles the Google Maps API, Google Account syncing, remote wipe, push messages, the Play Games back end, and many other duties.

With this concept, it is possibly for Google to roll out new functionality within days after it was announced. Furthermore, Google keeps extracting applications like Mail, Maps or Calendar from operating system moving them to the Play Store and making them updatable by end users.

Though the fragmentation problem on hardware level will still exist, this will be a great improvement regarding the software fragmentation. When central parts of the Android system can be updated without involvement from OEMs and carriers, developers will find more support for recent APIs on broader device base to build their apps.

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