Android fragmentation: For developers, it's a bug and a feature

Platform fragmentation is a given for Android, but developers find an upside to this fact of mobile life

Fragmentation in Google Android continues to dog the mobile platform. Carriers and manufacturers pitch in device-specific customizations, and multiple versions of the OS are in circulation, complicating life for software builders. But developers have come to accept the situation and devise their own ways of coping.

"[Android fragmentation is] a humongous problem.... You deal with [fragmentation] as best you can," says developer Donn Felker, an independent consultant and author. He advises developers to use the right API levels.

Developer Mike Mackey advises simplification: "We've basically taken a lot of steps to simplify the UI so that form factor and the UI layer that the [device makers] apply their changes to isn't impacted," says the vice president of engineering at Centri Technology, which implements mobile network management. Mackey, who is not currently developing for Android but has in the past, recalls an HTC device that broke a UI layer and required some adjustments. But Centri's developer were able to fix the code in a way that it did not affect Centri's UI on other devices.

Fragmentation is not an Android-specific issue, says Chris Haseman, lead Android developer at content sharing site Tumblr: "I've dealt with fragmentation on almost every mobile platform, and Android hands-down has the best set of tools for dealing with it, bar none. It is a concern -- you have to worry about it -- but the level of effort you have to put into it is miniscule compared to what we had to do in the past with things like J2ME [Java 2 Micro Edition] and Brew," two popular operating systems for traditional cellphones. Capabilities like device-independent pixels and relative layouts help developers handle screen real estate on Android units, he says.

Not all developers find fragmentation to be a stumbling block, at least not in every circumstance. Fragmentation is not much of an issue when dealing with low-level capabilities like compression and encryption, Mackey says. "Where you start to get into the most difficulty is when you get into the higher levels of the stack, where you're dealing with the UI and stuff like that."

There won't be a solution to fragmentation until manufacturers are tamed to not alter the OS, Felker says. Developer Adam Longfellow, CEO of the travel site, concurs. "They need to have some kind of baseline and not let carriers manipulate it as much," he says.

Haseman notes, "As we go forward, it's going to be on the device manufacturers not to add secret things that they don't declare, and for the most part they've been really good about it."

While it might be nice if Android had the relative uniformity offered by rival Apple's tightly controlled iOS mobile platform, that simply is not the way. "The only way to fix [Android fragmentation] it is close down the whole ecosystem," which is not a desirable solution, says developer Jeff Dick, senior programmer at Shelter Insurance.

The trade-off is clear, Dick says: "There's almost unlimited customization" on Android. "Most Android users like that ability, but it's hard to support that with hundreds and hundreds of devices out there."

This story, "Android fragmentation: For developers, it's a bug and a feature," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.