State of Fragmentation: 2012

February 1st, 2012 by

CES has come and gone, Mobile World Congress is less than a month away, and following both we are primed for a new wave of next-gen smartphones and tablets to drool over. But with the onslaught of saliva-inducing nerd treats ahead comes an age old discussion and issue within the mobile industry… FRAGMENTATION.

(take a second for the mobile developers to shudder)

Fragmentation has been around forever–differentiating a product is a basic concept in any business strategy. Different manufacturers make things with different parts, and different products are going to work differently in hopes of creating one-of-a-kind value. In mobile, the issue is the same. You’ve got a multitude of manufacturers creating devices with different hardware for multiple OS’s that each support their own browsers (some supporting multiple browsers) and applications. Developing a consistently exceptional user experience, while taking each flavor into account sounds rough, doesn’t it? Well it is.

Seemingly infinite combinations

In today’s mobile world, there are over ten thousand devices in use across the globe covering the simplest feature phones to the smartest of smartphones and tablets. The top 5 OEMs — Samsung, Apple, Motorola, HTC and Nokia — produce devices that run on more than five different operating systems — iOS, Android, Windows, Blackberry, Symbian, etc… And, as you can imagine, things like screen size, processor power, input method, and OS can range drastically across the board. So no wonder sometimes it feels as if there is an infinite number of combinations to worry about.

Breaking it down further, within the Android platform (heavily documented as the infamous standout of fragmentation) there are currently 11 different versions of the OS running on hundreds of different devices in the US alone. Even Apple’s iOS and RIM’s Blackberry OS are now onto their 5th and 8th versions respectively, with numerous phones out in the wild running on different software iterations.

Additionally, a brand new level of fragmentation has taken shape with a strong influx of tablets entering the current mix. And it is only expected to multiply. Now, not only do we need to worry about 3-4 inch screens, but 7-10 inch devices as well! (And let’s not even get started on today’s smart TVs).

Problems within the browser

Browsers are not immune to fragmentation either. Even among the WebKit browsers there is significant fragmentation affecting handling of JavaScript and CSS, as well as access to device and OS features. Here at Trilibis, we regularly come across a multitude of browser-related development issues, such as:

        • Rendering quality varies greatly between device families and versions, from smooth to severe color banding
        • Certain handsets, like the Galaxy S2, completely break swipe galleries making them unusable
        • iOS handsets tend to auto-shrink any background image over 2MB
        • Landscape view controls differ by device and OEM
        • Device GPS lookup is handled  differently on Android and iOS devices
        • Fixed positioning of images is supported by the latest versions of Android and iOS, but still does not work properly on BlackBerry devices

For more on the state of mobile browser fragmentation, check out a past panel discussion organized by Mobile Monday Silicon Valley.

Fragmentation looking forward

Fragmentation is always going to exist. Whether, and when, it will get more manageable still remains to be seen, but things finally seem to be on the right track. HTML5, although not in its current state, has promised to make the development world a bit easier with its theoretical right-once, run-everywhere capabilities.

Google has taken a stab at unifying their Android platform across devices (including smartphones and tablets) with the Ice Cream Sandwich version of their OS. They’ve even taken another step by limiting some of the freedom OEMs have in creating their own Android flavors while still being allowed to access Google services like the Android Market.

Microsoft, who has seen fragmentation take over their previous mobile operating system, is taking a stand with the new Windows Phone experience and designing it for consistency across devices while only allowing slight customization from the OEM.

While each of the above are bright spots on the trek to simplify mobile development, many of these solutions will not be realized for quite some time. For now, there are two paths for developers: 1) keep track of all the nuances and constantly look for workarounds or 2) partner with a mobile development framework that aggregates this knowledge into a robust development platform and streamline your development efforts. You probably know which camp we’re in.

What’s your take on mobile fragmentation? Let us know in the comments or continue the conversation with us on Twitter at @TrilibisMobile.

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3 Responses to “State of Fragmentation: 2012”

  1. Anthony Long says:

    As a Web 1.0 and 2.0 survivor, I have wrestled with the whole fragmentation issue.

    Now, I choose to ignore it.

    “Fragmentation” is a code word for the layout going all to hell, or the fancy feature not working uniformly across gizmos. But, if we as developers and content creators focus on the message and the user’s relative environment whiole we are trying to engage them, then we can still deliver excellence, if not complete uniformity.

    Thanks for this piece, I really enjoyed it.

  2. Greg Palmer says:

    Nicely put. Sometimes fragmentation issues are too difficult too ignore. But I agree that focusing on the message and user are important steps in delivering an excellent experience and uniformity across devices. Going a step further, we develop our sites to adapt at runtime to the user’s relative environment (be it smartphone, feature phone, large screen, small screen, etc.) and provide them with the best experience possible.

    Thanks for the comment Tony. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. [...] 2012 by Greg Palmer Earlier this year, I reviewed where the mobile industry stood in terms of fragmentation and reviewed how big of a problem it really was. Well, now that we’re a few months down the road, [...]