Android fragmentation complicates enterprise BYOD support

IT pros that want a consistent version of Android to support as part of a BYOD policy, take note: Android fragmentation is here to stay.

Samsung has made strides in making Android enterprise-ready, but the operating system remains too fragmented for most organizations to standardize on.

There are six different versions of the Android OS currently in use. The latest statistics from Google this week showed that 94% of the nearly 500 million Android devices activated are powered by Gingerbread 2.3 or higher. Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0 accounts for 29.3% of devices, Jelly Bean 4.1/4.2 accounts for 25% of devices and Gingerbread 2.3 is found on 39.8% of devices. Other versions of the OS run on about 6% of devices.

This level of fragmentation presents challenges to IT departments' mobile strategies because they need consistency across the Android platform.

They are "fighting an uphill battle because they don't have much control over what devices get brought into their environment," said Benjamin Robbins, principal at Palador Inc., an enterprise mobility consulting firm based in Seattle.

Companies with a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy have an easier time limiting the variables they have to control and secure with Apple iOS, Microsoft's Windows Phone or BlackBerry than they do with Android, said Adam Bookman, co-founder at Propelics Inc., a mobile application development and consulting shop in San Jose, Calif.

"With Android those choices are exponential," Bookman said.

The seemingly limitless choice of Android devices for consumers requires IT pros to make choices of their own when it comes to supporting the platform in a BYOD environment, Robbins said. Since most Android devices run version 2.3 or higher, IT can use that as a baseline to set a BYOD policy around. Employees who want access to the network and mobile management resources must have at least Android 2.3 installed on their device, Robbins said.

"That would certainly make life easier for IT in the short-term as they figure out how to support a range of platforms," he added. "It's better to take a device-agnostic mobile approach and concentrate on securing the apps and data because fragmentation isn't going away over the long term."

Android fragmentation factors

The primary factors driving fragmentation of the Android OS, according to industry watchers, are:

  • Agreements between device OEMs and wireless carriers to support OS updates only last for a specific number of months. The majority of Android devices only receive one OS update during their lifetime.
  • OEMs add a user interface customization to the Android SDK in an effort to distinguish themselves from other vendors. Also, many devices come in a range of screen sizes.
  • Each new release of the Android SDK has been significantly larger than the previous. Device OEMs only partition a certain amount for the OS. If the new version of Android, plus their customization skin, is larger than the amount of space partitioned, then OEMs cannot update to the new version of Android.

Android limitations lead to fragmentation

The Android Software Development Kit (SDK) has increased from 72 MB to 203 MB from versions 2.0 to 4.2, respectively. The inability to physically resize the partition containing the OS is one of the biggest reasons why fragmentation exists in the Android platform, said Lori Sylvia, executive vice president of marketing at Red Bend Software, a Waltham, Mass.-based company.

Red Bend's vRapidMobile is the technology behind firmware-over-the-air (FOTA) updates for many mobile device OEMs. The latest version allows OEMs to resize partitions over the air by taking extra space needed for the new OS version from the cache partition. The new feature does so without touching the space designated for the user's apps and data, although Sylvia could foresee Android OEMs allowing that to be a user option.

The ability to resize device partitions won't work for Android devices bought within the last few years, but vRapidMobile will support FOTA updates for future devices using the technology.

Red Bend hopes that by eliminating the partition size limitation of OS upgrades more OEMs and carriers will be inclined to support devices for a longer duration, Sylvia said.

However, even if the majority of OEMs push out timely firmware updates so that a majority of devices run the same OS version -- something IT pros would embrace -- there will always be form-factor and screen-size fragmentation to consider, Propelics' Bookman pointed out.

Further, the OEM customizations of Android aren't going away because that's the primary way Samsung, HTC and other OEMs distinguish themselves from one another, he added.

Google, for its part, has made several attempts to address the problem of fragmentation.

It launched the Android Update Alliance in 2011 as a joint agreement with OEM partners to support OS updates for at least 18 months after the release of a device. It also made Android's source code available to those partners earlier in the development process so OS updates would happen sooner, launched Google-branded hardware, and adjusted the Android SDK Terms of Service in January 2013 to limit OS forking.

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