If you’ve ever compared an iPhone or iPad with a phone or tablet that runs Google’s Android, you may have noticed that the Apple gadget just seems to run more… well, smoothly. At Apple’s annual gathering of developers in San Francisco last month, Apple CEO Tim Cook gleefully displayed a pair of pie charts that explain why.
These show how much more unified iPhone’s universe is compared to Android’s. More than nine in ten iPhone users have the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS 6. By contrast, three different versions of Android make up a comparable proportion. The single most prevalent version, Gingerbread (or v2.3), which is several versions behind the latest one, is used by only 37% of Android devices.
This, Apple users claim, is proof of the superiority of iOS over Android. Because only Apple makes iOS devices and constantly pushes their owners to update to the latest version of iOS, developers can easily create apps that work perfectly on every device.
Apple certainly has a point. The graphic at the top of this story, from a nifty new report put together by app-maker OpenSignal, shows just how fragmented the Android ecosystem is. Nearly 12,000 devices, by a slew of different manufacturers, each of which not only chooses which version of Android to use but bolts on various modifications of its own, wrestle for a piece of the action. And while Samsung makes up nearly half of those devices, no single phone can claim much of a lead over the others. The biggest-selling model, Samsung’s Galaxy S3, accounts for less than 6% of Android’s market. The highest-ranking non-Samsung device, Google’s Nexus 4, comes in seventh, with a meagre 1.1%. The phrase “long tail” has never been more appropriate.
Moreover, this fragmentation is growing explosively. When OpenSignal did a similar study last year (it gets the data from devices that have recently downloaded its app, which helps users manage their signal strength), it found 3,997 Android models from 599 brands. This year’s study found 11,868 models across 1,778 brands in over 200 countries. Almost 3,000 of these devices appeared only once in OpenSignal’s sample of 682,000 downloads. As more companies in developing countries get in on the handset game, the Android ecosystem can only get more diverse.
That is a headache for developers. They face two main complicating factors. The first is screen size. At the moment, an iOS app needs to work on a grand total of four screen sizes, namely those of the iPad, the iPad Mini, the iPhone 5, and the older iPhones and iPod Touch. In contrast, Android devices come in all shapes and sizes, from beermat-shaped phones to great big blotter-size tablets. That means every app must go through weeks of testing on numerous devices to make sure it looks presentable.
The second problem is the operating system fragmentation that Tim Cook was gloating about. App-makers need to decide between making their app work on even the weakest and oldest versions of Android—which means sacrificing power and features for the sake of reaching as many users as possible—or only on newer ones, which means sacrificing possible users at the altar of progress.
Yet Android’s heterogeneous universe is also what has made it successful, because it can work on cheap devices that any manufacturer can make. “That’s what’s great about Android. You can get the phone that’s right for you,” says Samuel Johnston of OpenSignal. In the quarter ended in June, Android tablets raced past Apple to command 67% of tablet market share to Apple’s 28%. In the first quarter of the year, three of every four smartphones in the world ran on Android. So while it’s getting increasingly hard for developers to build an app that every Android user can use, it’s getting increasingly easy to build one that works for enough of them to make it worthwhile.