Android and the F-word
No, I’m not referring to the obscenity, although I may as well be, as far as some die-hard Android fans are concerned. The word I’m referring to is “fragmentation” — the buzzword at the crux of many criticisms leveled against the Android OS. In my view, not only do these criticisms misuse this term, but they underestimate the values of flexibility and personalization as well.
At a basic level, fragmentation refers to a larger object being broken into smaller pieces, or fragments. That word, “fragment,” indicates an incomplete object that can’t function on its own. If a glass vase breaks into hundreds of pieces, for instance, those pieces can be called fragments because those pieces, individually, are worthless. Another, more tech-related example would be a standard hard drive. Data on the platters are stored in clusters/fragments. Individually, those clusters do not provide anything useful to the user. Only when all of the fragments of that one file are put together does the user get something that makes sense. Again, the fragments refer to pieces of data that are useless in the fragmented state. In the Android context, these fragments are supposedly the skins that manufacturers are putting on top of the Android foundation to customize it and add their own twists – a process critics allege compromises the user’s experience and renders the customized operating system unrecognizable. However, these so-called fragments continue to function on their own. They’re neither broken like the shards from a vase, nor are they incomplete like the bits of data on a hard drive. So why is it that the term “fragmentation,” a word that implies brokenness, is used to describe Android? I’d say that a narrow view of the topic has a lot to do with it.
Are some of the skins problematic? Yep.
Do the skins complicate OS-wide updates? Definitely.
But is all of this Android’s fault? Nope.
If a DJ takes a good song and makes a bad remix of it, that doesn’t make the original song bad. It’s the DJ’s rendition that’s bad, so why should the original song be held accountable? Well, that’s exactly what’s happened to Google’s Android, which is unjustly bad-mouthed for the flaws and issues caused by OEMs that decided to put their own spin on the underlying operating system. Just like the DJ’s take on the song should be evaluated separately from the original, so too should the re-skinned versions of Android be judged separately from their Google origins.
Not only is Google not to blame for manufacturers’ ham fists, but it ought to be applauded for the so-called fragmentation, for offering choices and enabling customization. Android’s chameleon character can cater to the needs of so many more people, but it’s much more than that. A short while ago, Jerry Hildenbrand over at Android Central said it best in a great article that likened Android to Linux. Specifically, Hildenbrand drew parallels between Android’s malleable platform and Linux, whose open architecture gave rise to the many operating systems that use the Linux Kernel. Check it out if you can. It’s well worth the read.
The point to take away from Hildenbrand’s article is that, at the base level, both Linux and Android offer a platform on which anyone with the necessary skill can build – or improve. And the spinoffs should be evaluated on their individual merits. Take, for example, two popular but greatly different interpretations of Linux: Red Hat and Ubuntu. While Red Hat is generally more popular for servers and enterprise settings, Ubuntu is more popular for home computers. Each calls Linux “Dad,” but they cater to completely different audiences. A home user would find Red Hat confusing and irrelevant, and an IT professional in charge of a corporate network would no doubt consider many of Ubuntu’s features to be superfluous, detrimental to performance, even. And those unflattering opinions would likely shake out in any reviews, but it would be wrong to use them as ammo against Linux.
Of course, Android’s a slightly different case because unlike Linux, which acts as a kernel, Android is a self-contained operating system. But just as Red Hat and Ubuntu build on the Linux kernel and go in different directions, so too do Android skins like Samsung’s TouchWiz and Motorola’s MotoBlur (a name that Motorola is now trying to do away with). Each of those acts as an individual OS and interface. Each of them caters to different people. Each of those comes with its own issues, complexities and benefits — characteristics that are specific to each one of them separately. Android is simply a platform that allows customization and encourages variety.
So, no, Android isn’t broken, and it’s not fragmented, strictly speaking. It’s a healthy ecosystem sustained by the diversity of its potential permutations — one that needs to be evaluated and critiqued from a broader, more open-minded perspective.