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Android fragmentation: More OS versions, more problems

Android fragmentation is a big problem for enterprise IT because it makes managing devices difficult. And unfortunately, there isn't a good solution.

Android fragmentation presents a lot of problems for enterprise IT, and there aren't many good solutions.

The Android operating system is fragmented for a couple of reasons, so the fragmentation problem is a many-headed beast that won't be defeated quickly. Unfortunately for IT, that means departments just have to find ways to deal with fragmentation.

There are a few options, but in general, IT needs a plan of attack to keep the Android beast in check. Keep reading to find out what your management options are, and learn more about why Android in the enterprise is so fragmented.

What is mobile device fragmentation?

A mobile operating system becomes fragmented when there are several different OS versions in use at the same time. Fragmentation is usually associated with Android because wireless carriers and device manufacturers, not OS developers, are the ones who control when OS updates are sent out to different devices. Apple is in control of when iOS updates are sent to devices, so there isn't any fragmentation of that OS.

Additionally, fragmentation is the result of different device manufacturers adapting a mobile OS for their own devices, as is the case with Android. For example, the version of Android that runs on some Samsung devices has been modified to work closely with Samsung's hardware. It is not the same version of Android that runs on other manufacturer's devices, even if the name of the OS version is the same.

What problems does Android fragmentation cause?

Because the Android OS is so fragmented, enterprise IT can't standardize on one Android OS version, which makes supporting devices a nightmare. Each operating system version and device has different features, so some Android OS versions come with more management features than others. Early versions of the OS don't have as many management hooks for IT, but those versions are still in use and are in the enterprise, so IT has to find ways to manage them. For many companies, that means finding a mobile device management tool that can control a wide variety of Android OS versions, plus the other mobile OSes that are accessing the corporate network, but performing that task is easier said than done.

What can IT do about Android fragmentation?

There are some -- but not many -- ways IT can deal with Android fragmentation. Some companies choose to buy devices for users, which will ensure those devices all run the same Android OS version. But manufacturers don't keep up with OS updates, so whichever version of Android is on the devices the company buys will become out of date as soon as the new version of Android becomes available. In that situation, replacing devices when they get old or deploying new ones to new employees will eventually become a problem.

In bring-your-own-device scenarios, IT can set a baseline for which Android OS versions users can bring to work. Most Android devices run version 2.3 or higher, so that's a good place to start. Some IT departments have chosen not to allow Android devices at all, which helps to avoid fragmentation headaches altogether, but doesn't necessarily appease employees.

Will Android fragmentation ever go away?

Unfortunately, it looks like fragmentation will be a problem for IT over the long haul. Device manufacturers would rather focus on bringing in new customers with the latest version of Android than spending the necessary time and money building OS updates for older devices. That means anyone locked into a wireless contract with a device running an older Android OS version is pretty much stuck with it. Additionally, the fragmentation that comes from vendor-specific modifications to the Android OS isn't going away anytime soon. Samsung, HTC and other original equipment manufacturers use the modifications to the Android OS to set themselves apart from other Android devices.

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