Editorial: Is fragmentation finally catching up with Windows Phone?
June 30, 2012 at 12:25 GMT | By Darlington Moyo
When Microsoft launched Windows Phone in 2010, they left behind a severely fragmented Windows Mobile operating system. Then, Windows Mobile was today's Android, with OEM's (Original Equipment Manufacturer) given a free license to do as they pleased with the operating system just like Android OEM's do today. The difference then was that Samsung's Touch Wiz and HTC's sense were still in their infancy, meaning they were largely a hindrance rather than a help. This left Windows Mobile severely fragmented, meaning user experience was extremely varied, mainly determined by the OEM's skin rather than the operating system. Realising this, Microsoft decided to take matters to their own hands with Windows Phone. OEMs were no longer going to be allowed to change the user interface in Windows Phone, meaning all Windows Phone users would enjoy a similar experience, regardless of whether their device is a high-end Samsung device or a lowly ZTE.
What is fragmentation? It is when relatively new devices are often unable to run the latest version of the software that powers them. For software developers, fragmentation means they cannot be sure how, or even if, their applications will run successfully on the latest handsets. It is when users on the same platform can no longer enjoy use of applications available for the particular platform, due to a differentiation in software or exclusivity.
True Fragmentation (Android)
Take a deep breath because the numbers you will see might leave you needing a tank of oxygen. Only 7% of Android devices are running Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), the latest version which was publicly released in October last year, about the same time Apple released iOS 5, yet 80% of Apple's users have iOS 5 installed on their devices. As if that is not damning enough, Google recently announced their forthcoming update, Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) which should be available in the next couple of months, while more than 65% of Android devices are still stuck on Android 2.3 (Ginger Bread). Google touts the latest features available on Android, but end users do not see them because OEM's are too busy developing for operating system versions released two years ago. On the market right now are phones with Android 2.2 (Froyo). That version of Android is now over two years old, released in May 2010. Most never see an upgrade because it is the device OEM and carrier (not Google) who is responsible for shipping out updates. This is not where the bad news ends. However financially rewarding it may be, developing apps and games for Android can be the stuff of nightmares. The biggest challenge for Android developers is the huge variation in screen resolutions. Where the non-rigidity and diversity of screen technologies (3D included) and pixel count are one of Android's major selling points, it more-or-less impossible to ensure that a certain application works on all Android devices. It's no wonder that a recent study suggested that the problem has prompted developers to shy away from the platform, which in turn may lead to a slow erosion of market share. Ok, enough scare-mongering. on a serious note, this is what real fragmentation is. Do we really want to this to happen to Windows Phone?
Managed Fragmentation (Apple)
Part of Apple's dominance of the smartphone app market can be explained by its approach to limiting fragmentation. While a few of the latest features are limited to the most recent handset, Apple always ensures that the latest version of its iOS software is compatible with iPhones that are up to two years old. The iPhone 3GS, now well over three years old yet still receiving the latest iOS updates epitomizes fragmentation management. Yes we know, Apple manages to do this because of their unique position of being in complete control of both hardware and software of their iPhones. Of course the Apple ecosystem is not exempt from fragmentation. The iPhone 3GS, 4 and 4S all run slight variations of the latest iOS and increasingly, older iOS devices are not able to run all the latest apps and games found in Apple's App Store.
Potential Fragmentation in Windows Phone
When Windows Phone 8 launches in a few months time, Microsoft will be the proud owner of 3 mobile operating systems in Windows Mobile 6.5.x, Windows Phone 7.x and Windows Phone 8, all launched within 2 and a half years of one another yet their native code is largely incompatible. Do not forget that Windows Mobile still arguably makes up for most of Microsoft's smartphone market share. Also, Windows Phone 8 users will be able to download and use applications developed for WP7 devices and yet Windows Phone 7 users will not be afforded that privilege. This is fragmentation right?
Another issue is the availability of low-end Tango devices that are not able to run applications and games that demand more that the measly 256 MB of RAM that Tango devices offer, much like the Nokia Lumia 610/Skype debacle. Yes, it's a minor issue that unlikely to bother users in emerging markets that these devices are supposed to target, but the fact remains, it's an issue. There is also the recent trend that has seen Nokia release a bunch of useful applications and games to the Lumia devices, meaning they are available in the Windows Phone Marketplace exclusively for Nokia Lumia devices. Applications do not usually determine the user experience, but they go a long way in influencing it.
We know that Windows Phone 8 will support support the following display formats: 15:9 WVGA 800 x 480, 15:9 WXGA 1,280 x 769 and 16:9 720p 1,280 x 720. While it brings choice to end users, it may also be a curse if lazy developers do not do a good job of making sure that their applications work on all the three screen resolutions. The predictability of three screen resolution should help.
Fragmentation in Windows Phone is beginning to rear it's ugly head. Though unlikely to reach Android's pandemic proportions, it will get worse before it subsides as users naturally upgrade to Windows Phone 8. The pain of knowing that a new and capable Nokia Lumia 900 will not enjoy features that low-end Windows Phone 8 devices might is going to hurt many. The inability to have access to RAM-demanding applications for low end (Tango) devices will remain an issues, while the inability to download Lumia exclusive apps for non-Nokia devices is not ideal either. The idea of some models being more equal than others is not attractive for OEMs trying to encourage reluctant users away from Google and Apple. For consumers, it makes the issue of when the best time to buy a new Windows Phone more tricky. Nobody, after all, wants their phone to be obsolete within months of buying it.
You might like:
blog comments powered by Disqus