Critics of Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) Android platform for tablets, smartphones, and set-top boxes like to hold up fragmentation as a key weakness. Android comes in hundreds of flavors, with each handset maker adding its own personal touches to the software and then handing it over to the mobile network for further tweaking. The result is innumerable Android variants tailored to very specific (and sometimes contradictory) demands. And then, when Google updates the core software, it takes forever before end users see any features or performance improvements.
The fragmentation debate is getting plenty of fuel right now. On one hand, the latest and greatest Android version, dubbed Ice Cream Sandwich, is finally arriving on many of the best-selling devices. But then, Google is expected to introduce the next version at next week's Google I/O conference. Diversity is going up and down all at once..
What's an Android user -- not to mention Google investors -- to do?
Some skepticism is clearly warranted. Ice Cream Sandwich was introduced in October 2011, and had reached only 7% of Android handsets as of June 1 -- seven months later. The rate of adoption is hardly impressive:
Source: Google's Android developer site.
See that little sliver at the bottom, marked Android 4.0.3? That's Ice Cream Sandwich. Almost everyone is stuck on older, inferior software. By contrast, Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) controls the hardware and software for all its iOS devices and isn't keen on letting network carriers change much about their iPhones. So when Apple comes up with a new software version, it moves out quickly: 60% of all iOS users upgraded to version 5.1 less than two weeks after its unveiling in March, and half of the holdouts are just stuck with hardware too old to support the improved software.
But when it rains, it pours. In the past few days, Samsung released Ice Cream Sandwich updates for its popular Galaxy S2 series. Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) saw upgrades to the Motorola-made line of Droid RAZR phones, which is the network's biggest seller ahead of the iPhone, as well as the HTC Droid Rezound. So expect that little Ice Cream wedge to expand drastically when Google updates that chart at the end of June.
So app developers have to account for a myriad of hardware and software combinations you'd never see in the Apple world, but judging from sales figures, consumers seem to appreciate the wide variety of choices more than they're perplexed by the variety. The blessings outweigh the curses.
That said, no gadget in the mobile revolution outsells the iPhone in a head-to-head comparison. Our chief tech analyst here at the Fool believes that Apple can enjoy that advantage for years to come, and has penned an in-depth report to explain his reasoning. To see whether you agree with his logic, get your copy of that premium report right now.