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KitKat, GMS and the death of fragmentation

Google is reportedly requiring manufacturers to run KitKat in order to get GMS certification. Will this end fragmentation?


Fragmentation has been a problem that has plagued Android ever since the platform experienced a boom in sales and activations with several manufacturers. It’s a concern that one can expect with a platform that is adopted by different brands. It’s a fact that Android is fragmented, and the onus is often on the device manufacturers and carriers, who are ultimately responsible for updates and the certification process.

This is often taken in contrast with Apple’s iOS. With only a few device models to worry about, Apple can afford to build and optimize its latest iOS release for each of these supported devices. Even the three-year old iPhone 4 supports the latest release of iOS7. According to Apple, 80 percent of active iOS devices are already running the latest version.

In contrast, KitKat, the latest version of Android, enjoys less than 2 percent adoption rate, according to Google’s latest figures. Jelly Bean still leads with a total of 60.5 percent across versions 4.1.x through 4.3.x. Twenty percent of Android users are still using 2.3 Gingerbread, which is almost three years old. Sixteen percent are still running the two-year-old 4.0.x Ice Cream Sandwich.

Have a break! Have a KitKat!

Samsung has announced KitKat updates earlier this year. But not all devices will be supported.
Samsung has announced KitKat updates earlier this year. But not all devices will be supported.

A report released by MobileBloom claims that manufacturers have been instructed by Google to use only the latest versions of Android henceforth, in order for their devices to be eligible for GMS certification. This means device makers can no longer use Jelly Bean or older Android versions if they wish to be able to bundle Google’s native apps and services such as Google Play, Gmail, Maps and the like.

Starting February 2014, Google will no longer approve [Google Mobile Services] distribution on new Android products that ship older platform releases. Each platform release will have a “GMS approval window” that typically closes nine months after the next Android platform release is publicly available.

Google would not confirm the report at this time, although it is probable that the platform owner would enforce such a requirement if only to reduce compatibility issues in its operating system. This will also encourage device makers to exert more effort in ensuring they keep up-to-date in terms of mobile OS.

Android essentially comes in two parts. The Android Open Source Project (AOSP) is the open-source aspect of Android, and this is free to be used, tweaked and installed by handset makers. Meanwhile, GMS is the non-open source part of Android. Manufacturers have to license this part from Google, which certifies devices as eligible to be bundled and marketed with Google Services.

This is one reason why some manufacturers opt out of running Google services. Most devices will be compatible with an after-market GMS installation, though, which means users can download the Gapps bundle and install these apps after purchase. Others, like Amazon, have opted to “fork” Android. The Kindle Fire, for example, runs AOSP, but does not include GMS. Rather, it runs Amazon’s own Appstore and content ecosystem.

Other Android manufacturers might not be as comfortable as Amazon without GMS, though. This will mean the lack of the Play Store, which is one of the selling points of the platform. Can manufacturers risk asking users to download and then flash GMS on their own?

If Google were, indeed, to prevent manufacturers from from marketing their devices as having the full Android experience if they cannot install KitKat, this would only be a good thing for customers, who are assured that their devices will come with the latest Android release at purchase. And because smartphones usually have a product cycle of about six months to a year (meaning brands would often launch new versions of hardware within this period), they are likely to be working on an update within this cycle as well.

We may recall that one of the defining features of KitKat is its support for low-spec products. In particular, this includes devices with a small RAM size. 512MB of RAM had been hardly enough to get a good user experience with ICS and Jelly Bean, but KitKat was supposed to provide a smoother experience even with not-so-stellar specs. And so, it would make even more sense for manufacturers to ship their with KitKat, because the latest Android release supposedly works better even on cheaper and older devices.

Will this be the end of fragmentation?

No GMS, no Play Store!
No GMS, no Play Store!

Keeping devices up-to-date is not always easy on manufacturers, however. Before Samsung, for example, could release an update, its devices and software go through a bevy of testing and certification processes. This even includes carrier certification, at least in the US, where carriers have a big say on rollout schedules. Manufacturers that have several devices in their lineup would, therefore, have to spend more time in customizing Android for their needs.

Case in point: Samsung is only now announcing a KitKat update for more than a dozen devices, and this is not even applicable for all markets. Some devices will be left out, and users often turn to the custom ROM community to get the latest versions of Android on their devices.

This means that all things considered, fragmentation is still likely to exist on some level, but at least Google’s efforts in pushing KitKat would reduce this. Right now, it’s so bad that I can still see a handful of devices in the market still shipping with Jelly Bean — older API variants at that. And this is not limited to low-end and older devices. Even supposedly flagship devices like the Samsung Galaxy S4 are still shipping with Jelly Bean 4.2.2.

The S4 was first released in April 2013, and it shipped with 4.2.2. Google announced KitKat in September that year, and the first device to ship with 4.4 was the LG Nexus 5 in end October. Months later, the Galaxy S4 is set to receive a KitKat upgrade this February, although the market is already expecting its successor — the Galaxy S5 — to launch at MWC this January.

Such are the intricacies of the smartphone industry. If Google were, indeed, adamant at reducing fragmentation, then this is one of the better ways to do so. Let’s hope that manufacturers and carriers will take heed.

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