Google Pixel Phones Won’t Solve Android’s Fragmentation Problem
“Focus on the user and all else will follow.” Google’s marketing philosophy embraces cohesive diversity, and over the years it has endorsed a variety of hardware while persevering for the monolithic Apple design. With Google being a leading name when it comes to Android, it was only a matter of time before it entered the ring with its Pixel series. Although aiming to push its vision for Android, Google might have come short in trying to solve some of Android’s basic problems.
Android being open sourced, has seen a multitude of developers and manufacturers, each trying to come up with their unique additions to conquer the market. Manufacturers must conform to Google’s guidelines if they build a phone running Google’s proprietary software, including Google play, the reigning app store. However, this diverse mix of hardware and software has plagued Android with the unshakable problem of fragmentation. Fragmentation has always been a problem for Android phones, preventing every device from receiving the newest software update at the same time, because of software customizations made by manufacturers.
Apple’s somewhat immutability still finds preference with many users compared to Android’s flexibility. A valid reason is the cohesive iOS ecosystem. The platform delivers its promise of reliable developer support and consistent updates at all times. Meanwhile, as Android phones age, updates are no longer rolled out and developer support was withdrawn.
The Pixel phones make it evident that Google intends to implement vertical integration between hardware and software, stressing on component-level control. The highest rated camera quality is proof enough. However, Google’s demonstration of an ideal Android experience might not resonate with other OEMs.
For one, Pixel poses no threat to some of the leading OEMs when it comes to marketing. It is mightily overshadowed by the Huawei’s control over Chinese markets or Samsung’s dominance over the global markets. Samsung spends a generous amount on marketing itself, something Pixel cannot hope to achieve yet. Moreover, there’s widespread distribution of Samsung products while Pixel is only available selectively. In a way, Google has relatively less control over Android. Though it aims to make Android experience flawless, other major OEMs might not find it prudent to push out a generic model. Samsung, for example, looks to add a new feature that boosts their sales even more.
Under these circumstances, the only way Google can address some of the fragmentation issues is through the Android Compatibility Definition Document. This document lists all the optimal and mandatory rules and guidelines that all Android devices are expected to adhere to. For example, version 6.0 of CCD, Google mandated that Doze, a feature that decreased standby battery consumption should be implemented on all Marshmallow devices. Similarly, in version 7.0 of CCD, Google recommends USB Power Delivery to all Nougat devices. If mandated, this would be a blow to the proprietary mechanisms like Qualcomm’s Quick Charge or One Plus’ Dash Charge features for fast charging on devices with USB Type-C port.
Another attempt of using CCD to manage fragmentation is Google’s compulsion on implementing its multi-window feature on all Nougat devices. This move is sure to put off Samsung which has been developing its own multi-window solution starting with the Galaxy Note 2 way back in 2012. Maybe reinvigorated interest in Tizen is no coincidence.
A somewhat hypocritical move by Google at this point is the preference Pixel receives. Packed with Android 7.1 as it releases, it has run ahead of most Nexus devices which only recently jumped from the Android 7.1 Developer Preview to Android 7.1.1. Nexus 6, it seems has lagged in the race with no possible 7.1 updates this month. If this trend were to continue, updates would be rolled out to the Pixel phones first, then the fabled Nexus and Android One devices and finally devices by other OEMs.
Another issue is the exclusivity of the Google Assistant to Pixel phones. Meanwhile, there have been reports of Samsung building its own AI assistant to be rolled out soon. If Google mandates Assistant on other Android devices, Samsung might be forced to bundle its own competitor, worsening its problem of duplicate apps. Building a third mobile OS that could gain popularity enough to compete with Android and iOS is a slim chance.
For now, Google has definitely taken the first step in defining an ideal Android environment. It is obvious it intends to push it further with the building of custom silicon for its Pixel phones. However, enforcement of such defaults would be unnerving for present marketing giants, affecting their products adversely and potentially throw off the majority of Android users.
Meanwhile, the major problem of fragmentation remains unsolved.