Android Fragmentation: why it matters (and also doesn’t)

It has been almost a month since we published our report on Android Fragmentation – and the responses to it have been almost overwhelming. The report was liked 4,000 times on Facebook, generated almost 3,500 tweets and was given great coverage by both tech and mainstream press. We suspected while we were writing it that we were about to re-ignite the embers of a fanboy flame-war, but we weren’t quite anticipating how hot that fire would burn (see the comments on the Verge article).  Possibly our favourite response came from Tech Hive, who waited for everything to calm down before issuing a gif-laden article telling everyone to shut up about fragmentation (which of course only succeeded getting everyone riled up again, great job guys!).

So who is right? Is Android fragmentation a strength or a weakness? Does anyone care? Why am I still writing about this? These are the questions I want to quickly address by building upon the points I wrote about in the conclusion to the report – namely, that cheap Android devices (the lower-end of the fragmentation spectrum) are going to be the hardware which enables greater global internet access.

Both Google, with Project Loon, and Facebook, with internet.org, have been active recently in putting global Internet access on the public agenda. This fits in with the slowly swirling rhetoric about whether Internet access should be considered a human right (or perhaps as a crucial support for existing rights), which is far too weighty a subject for this immediate blog post. The fact remains that there are some 4 billion people without Internet access and therefore without the economic and social benefits it brings. Both Google and Facebook have (wrongly, in my opinion) come under criticism for these projects – with the line of argument seeming to run (and I admit that this is a slight simplification) that their concern with shareholder profits prevents them from doing anything good. This line of argument seems to miss the point that companies acting in their own self-interest is the driving force of capitalism, and has brought almost unimaginable technological and social advancement. The idea that individuals’ and corporations’ own negative self-interest drives general improvement is capitalism, and is one of the central observations of Bernard Mandeville, a great influencer of Adam Smith. It is as true today as it was then.

Discernable in this maelstrom of discussions about rights, the role of the corporation in capitalism and the nature of altruism – is a general move towards innovative, mobile-based, solutions to the problem of the disconnected 4 billion. However, providing internet access (either fixed line or cellular) necessitates computing devices to make use of it. This is where a fragmented Android ecosystem comes in – enabling consumers that cannot afford high-end devices (see our previous analysis of the special significance of the mobile phone in Africa). So amongst all the consumer fury of the ecosystem war – an answer to the question ‘does it all really matter?’ arises: No, honestly, it doesn’t. Not in the developed world. Both ecosystems have their strengths and weaknesses and both fill niches in a mature market. Both have great apps, and a wide variety of them to choose from. When you look at the bigger picture, however, Android fragmentation looks like an immensely important technological trend – with the potential to provide the computing power for a new generation of Internet users. All that’s required now is someone, Google, Facebook or otherwise, to step in and provide the infrastructure.

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