The ongoing mess of Android’s app store fragmentation

Google AndroidAndroid has received plenty of criticism for the way the platform has fragmented over time. Most complaints focus on there being so many different versions of Android out there in the hands of consumers, not to mention the different UI enhancements that different phone makers have added.

A fragmented platform is harder for developers to target and makes it difficult to create a consistent user experience, which of course is bad for end users.

But there’s another kind of fragmentation happening on Android as well.

App store fragmentation

Let’s start with a few examples from other mobile platforms.

The point we’re trying to make is, these platforms all focus on one single app store. There is usually never any doubt for users where they should go to find an app.

On Android, you have:

The third point is really what this article revolves around. It’s not at all unthinkable that some carriers will choose to only include their own app store, replacing the Android Market for millions of Android users.

Fracturing the user experience

You could argue that the multi-app-store approach is one of Android’s strengths, not a weakness but part of its “openness.”

But think about it from the perspective of a regular mobile phone user, a mass-market consumer who may not even know what this thing called “Android” is. Having multiple app stores doesn’t exactly help streamline the Android user experience, does it?

Another problem is that these people could potentially be missing out on vast amounts of apps if they for example only access a carrier-run app store. And they will most likely not even be aware of this.

Even if Google wanted to reign in and take back control over the user experience for app purchases, it may be too late for that now. Google can improve the Android Market, because that’s under their control, but due to the open nature of the platform, carriers are likely to run wild with their own app stores.

So, assuming this fragmentation is a fact, what does it mean for app developers?

More fragmentation for developers to deal with

Where are developers supposed to place and manage their apps? Android Market is a given, but are they also supposed to place them on all of the other Android app stores or lose out?

And if carrier app stores become even more prevalent – they probably will, carriers love this kind of control and “uniqueness” – will developers have to deal with a ton of different carriers to make sure that their apps are available on their curated app stores?

Here is what Peter Westerbacka of Rovio, makers of Angry Birds, had to say about Android in a recent interview:

Android is growing, but it’s also growing complexity at the same time. Device fragmentation not the issue, but rather the fragmentation of the ecosystem. So many different shops, so many different models. The carriers messing with the experience again.

Android is on the cusp of an explosion in terms of number of devices sold, but the positive effect on the app economy may be severely hampered by this widespread app store fragmentation.

Or is this all a good thing?

So, what does this all mean for Android? Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing?

We obviously lean toward the latter, but it’s worth discussing. What do you think?


  1. Fundamentally it’s a really bad thing as we’re getting back into the situation we used to have 10 or so years ago where operators kept rebranding phones not allowing the upstream manufacturer updates.

    Not that I’m out of the free but I did buy a Nexus S to make sure I wouldn’t get locked in with a provider/manufacturer (having an HTC Hero was a PITA bigtime).

  2. This is Google’s goal – to create an open platform that is capable of doing exactly this. It’s just a different model. If it causes a problem for you, then you need to make a purchasing decision to go with a phone that works with Android Market or whatever, rather than your provider’s branding.

    Android is a platform, and there are many implementations of that platform – that was Google’s intention in the beginning. Apple’s iPhone is a platform but with only a single implementation. This is the nature of their proprietary model.

    You can draw a parallel to operating systems. “Linux” is a talked about in a similar way to “Android”, but in reality there are many many versions of Linux-based distributions, each with their own package management, repositories etc. Now is that a good, or a bad thing?

    At the end of the day, what you’re really saying is that implementations of Android aren’t always compatible with each other, and that tarnishes the Android name and user attraction/experience. Maybe so, but I for one am glad that Android, an open platform, is around at all.

  3. This is why I stick with HP webOS. One app catalog (you should mention that in your article, heh), one manufacturer (HPalm), and one version of the OS to be updated across all devices (at least, that’s the case so far).

    Plus, if I wanted to I could install Preware and get all kinds of Homebrew goodness completely separate from the official catalog. This doesn’t effect the user experience at all, since you don’t NEED Preware (the homebrew catalog) to get all of the official apps on your device. You can just get it if you know what you’re doing and want to play with some extra toys built by the community.

    It’s funny, cause people say that Android is the most open (read: best) platform available right now. IMHO, it seems the most closed and bloated of the smartphone OS’s.

  4. I’m with Daniel. “open” does not mean “standardized”, it means open – and that’s Google’s intention.

    The “regular mobile phone user” that the article speaks of doesn’t care about which app store they use. They don’t seek a *standard* user experience, just a great user experience. Different vendors deliver different user experiences, and the vendor market will show which vendors have the mix just right.

    Any vendor that replaces the Android Market with their own app store and fails to make available popular apps (like Angry Birds) will quickly suffer consumer backlash in terms of device sales. The internet is a great leveler and the lag between bad decisions and market response is ever decreasing.

    Regarding complexity in Android, all app developers (for *all* platforms, mobile, PC, Mac, Flash, anything) have to deal with different API versions. This is nothing new, and certainly not a blocker for any serious software vendor.

  5. Not fragmentation, but options and choices that other phone OS do not offer. You are able to see a problem if a carrier would prominently show its own market and a naive user would think they can only choose from the set of apps the carrier provides, but you can’t see the blatant problem of all other phone platforms having their set of apps filtered by exactly one app market provider only without alternative? I can’t believe you are trying to say that a tied down, Orwellian single shop place is better than an open market with many different providers for us to choose from.
    Where is your love of freedom?

  6. I really don’t think “fragmentation” is so much an issue as the media is making it. MOST Android phones are running version 2.1 or higher (the 1.5’s and 1.6’s are fading quickly into the sunset). Developers are using this as an excuse as well to stay away although the Android Market is quite bountiful.

    Most simple apps can run on pretty much any Android build. I would bet many Admins that use the Pingdom service are Android users as well moreso now than iOS or Crackberry. Last week saw the announcement that Android has surpassed the Iphone in market share.

    Why am i posting these facts? Because I am shocked to see that Pingdom has not bothered putting out an Android app for the service while their competition has been on the ball for quite some time. I find it a bit disapointing as i consider Pingdome to be far superior service. Time to wake up and deal with teh Droids guys, they aren’t going anywhere and 2011 will see their usage grow leaps and bounds over 2010.

  7. Who cares about the “fragmentation,” it’s much better than the over-priced monopoly that Apple and it’s App Store. That said, I’m reading and writing on a Mac, although I just switched to an Android phone (Google Nexus S) and I’m loving it.

    Anyway, the real reason I’m here is because I’m looking for a service such as Pingdom, but with an Android app 🙂

  8. Everytime there is/are criticism things about Android, there are always some fanboys to tell ya that Android is the open door for this world. LoL, it is whole about the copy-cat, it is suck with the tout about being open. Open source software does not mean you should be a copy-cat and you should be happy about that.
    5 years ago, Android is a copy-cat of QT model, few year laters it is copy-cat of BB OS, and later it is iOS. What’s next?

  9. Having owned both an iPhone and now a Droid, I can easily (and thankfully, happily,) say that my Droid makes my iPhone look sad. For whatever cosmetic or 4megapixel differences there might be between them, I’ve saved myself more money, time and utility going with an open system device.

    Its freedom of choice that counts to me. Apple doesn’t truly offer that in the final analysis.

    Can you still use your iPhone to make calls if you have no service but there’s wifi close at hand? Nope.

    I can.

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