Why 'fragmentation' isn’t a problem for Android or Linux

Why is it that what's viewed as healthy competition in one arena is so frequently labeled a "fragmentation problem" in other areas these days?

Why is it that what's viewed as healthy competition in one arena is so frequently labeled a "fragmentation problem" in other areas these days?

When you go to the store to buy a bottle of laundry detergent, is it a problem that there are choices? How about when you buy a new camera or a new car? Is choice a problem in these areas, or does it make it more likely that you can get what you want?

I find it hard to believe that market choice can ever be a bad thing, and most manufacturers apparently agree. Many brands, in fact, offer several different products in the same category, targeting distinct market segments. Yet in both the mobile arena and on the desktop, choice has recently been called a fragmentation problem for Android and Linux.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs, of course, decried the "problem" with Android in a post-earnings conference call on Monday, claiming that an "integrated" (read: one-size-fits-all) approach is better for users and developers. My colleague Robert Strohmeyer, meanwhile, blamed fragmentation in part for what he views as Linux's failure on the desktop.

Is fragmentation really a problem? No way. Here's why.

Consumers Like It

"Fragmentation," as I suggest above, is simply a derogatory term for "choice," something not only valued but expected in most product categories. It's a well-known fact that one-size-fits-all rarely fits anyone well; multiple competing choices, by contrast, offer consumers a way to get something that's as close to what they want as possible.

Of course, specific choices don't tend to survive if nobody wants them -- that, too, is part of a competitive marketplace. If there isn't demand for them, individual choices will disappear.

Now, Android phones are not as different as Jobs made out -- most of the differences, rather, are fairly superficial. But why would it ever be a problem that there are numerous Android phones available? There's clearly a small segment of consumers who like Apple's restrictive "walled garden" approach, but I can't imagine any kind of majority will ever prefer the iPhone's one-size-fits-all model in the mobile world any more than they have the Mac on the desktop.

It's a similar situation when it comes to Linux. Yes, there are many competing distributions, but again, that can only be a good thing for users because it means they can get what they want. I'll agree it might be something of a marketing and branding challenge for Linux, but it's certainly not a problem for users.

Developers Like It

Lest anyone repeat Jobs' shaky argument that diversity is bad for developers, let me just point out that there's considerable proof out there that mobile developers, in particular, prefer Android.

In fact, TweetDeck -- which Jobs tried to use to bolster his argument by noting the myriad different versions of Android it had to take into consideration when creating its app for the platform -- has since protested Jobs' statements.

"Did we at any point say it was a nightmare developing on Android?" TweetDeck CEO Iain Dodsworth tweeted in response to Jobs' claims. "Errr nope, no we didn't. It wasn't."

Then, too, there's the recent survey of developers by Appcelerator and IDC that found an overwhelming preference for Android over iPhone.

It's also important to note again that competing Android handsets aren't fundamentally different; their differences lie mostly on the surface. The fundamental operating system is still much the same, so development isn't the "daunting challenge" Jobs tries to make it out to be.

In the Linux arena, meanwhile, it may be fair to say that the diversity of distributions -- while not a problem for consumers -- could be an issue when it comes to developing software and drivers compatible with those distributions. In this case, however, any potential problem is alleviated by the fact that there are a very few clear favorites among consumers, meaning that developers really need only target those leading distributions -- Ubuntu, most notably -- to satisfy the majority of Linux users.

By order of the laws of supply and demand, market choices will only persist where consumers want them. That being the case, they are simply a reflection of what the market wants. "Fragmentation" is choice, and choice is what users want. In a healthy, competitive market, that's not any kind of problem.

Follow Katherine Noyes on Twitter: @Noyesk.

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Katherine Noyes

PC World (US online)
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