What's going on?
Last time we checked in on Android's version splits, half of all traffic to the Android Market came from handsets running version 2.1 or above while the rest ran last year's 1.5 or 1.6 software. This time, 70% of the requests over the past two weeks came from 2.1 and above with only 30% looking severely outdated. The latest and greatest iteration, version 2.2, now stands for 29% of all Market traffic.
These statistics are a little bit skewed by the fact that you're not as likely to go shopping in the Market if you've had your phone for months and months. Still, you have to go there to get updates to the apps you care about so the skew might still be a reasonable approximation of user counts.
The fragmentation between various versions of the Android software is often brought up to tear Google a new one. After all, Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) keeps its iPhones synchronized so you can be assured that an application written for the iPhone 3GS will run properly on the iPhone 4, too. Curiously, you don't hear this criticism nearly as often regarding the Research In Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM ) BlackBerry platform, though handsets on store shelves today reportedly range from version 4.2 to 6.0.
Why, oh, why?
The diversity in Android's user base stems from the range of available hardware with varied horsepower and features. Android 2.2 is supposed to make your phone run faster and adds a bevy of tasty features -- but it takes up more memory than older versions and may not fit on your old-as-Methuselah first-generation Android model.
In addition, Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) likes to add NFL applications to its smartphones these days, Deutsche Telekom subsidiary T-Mobile enjoys fiddling with the functions of your hardware buttons, Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S ) needs to support 4G networking that no other handset cares about yet, and so on. If you want a plain vanilla Android handset, you need to buy it straight from Google.
That's not always a terrible problem, though. For example, my very own tennis score application was made to run on Android 1.5 or later, because it simply doesn't need to start a wireless hotspot, support multi-touch controls, or worry much about your screen size. Most applications can be designed to run just fine on older Android platforms, because all the basics were in place pretty early on. If there is a problem with versions diverging, it would be that consumers need to know what they're buying in order to make the right choice.
No end in sight
Given the torrential flow of new Android gadgets (they're not all phones these days) and how manufacturers tend to fiddle with the software before releasing the latest update, it's a safe bet that the fragmentation will continue until Kingdom Come. Properly designed applications will mostly keep working on as-yet-undreamed-of Android versions while bad ones will fail. A year from now, 2.2 will feel quaintly obsolete, and people will wonder why Google doesn't force Samsung, Motorola (NYSE: MOT ) , and HTC to ship Android 3.5 on every device. And the answer will still be: It's not always possible, and sometimes it's not even a good idea.
Is Android fragmentation keeping you from buying a Samsung Galaxy S or Motorola Droid X today -- or could you care less about this over-hyped "problem"? Discuss in the comments below.