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Saturday, May 18, 2013, 06:57 pm PT (09:57 pm ET)

Google engineers talk fragmentation, how to make Android work for emerging markets

This week's Google I/O saw no announcements of any new versions of the company's mobile operating system, Android, and that may be because the team that is building the system is working to address the platform's biggest problem: fragmentation.

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via Garee's Blog


The issue of fragmentation arose this week in a panel discussion with assorted members of the Android team in attendance, according to Ars Technica. In the course of a forty-minute question and answer session, the team spoke on a number of topics related to Google's overwhelmingly popular operating system.

"This is something we think about a lot ," Dave Burke, Google's Android engineering director, said of fragmentation. Part of the problem, Burke said, lies in the fact that Android device vendors are able to take the open source code and create their own Board Support Packages — specific implementations of an operating system — to ensure compatibility between their devices and a certain build of Android.

"We do a lot of iteration," said Burke, "so that we try to build a system that works really well on a broad range of hardware."

Google was widely expected to release a new version of its operating system at this week's Google I/O, but the Android team's comments seem to indicate that the search giant has taken a different track this year, focusing more on honing what already exists on the platform rather than leaping ahead to new versions with new features and new architectures.

The team also discussed emerging markets where Android has become popular due to its ability to run on lower-specced hardware.

"We're looking at ways to make Android more efficient for the entry-level smartphones to help improve that situation," Burke said.

Fragmentation in the Android operating system is both a blessing and a curse for the platform. Reliance upon older versions of Android allows device manufacturers to put low-specced, low-cost devices into the hands of consumers in developing markets, but it also means that many consumers are unable to access some of the latest apps on the platform.

The issue also presents a problem for many Android developers. Having to write across multiple versions — around 40 percent of Android devices are running a three-year-old version of the OS — presents a challenge for smaller developer groups, which has led some observers to believe smaller groups will be squeezed out of the platform as it progresses.

In recent months, Google has changed the way it calculates the distribution of Android versions. While the company acknowledges that many devices are still on Gingerbread, first released in 2010, it now publicizes proportions only related to the users that access its Google Play Store, meaning that many Android device users essentially go uncounted with regard to developers.

By comparison, Apple's iOS 6 already accounts for 83 percent of web traffic from Apple devices in North America.