The meaning of 'fragmentation' tends to mold to whatever the argument is, for good or bad
I'm sick of it, you're sick of it, everyone who knows much of anything about Android is sick of it. "Fragmentation" is a word that gets bandied about when it comes to Android more frequently than just about anything else. It turns out that an open source operating system installed on devices made by hundreds of manufacturers all over the world, many of which don't really care whether Google releases an update, creates an unstable ecosystem.
We all know the answer we want to see in response to suggestions that Android is too fragmented to be functionally compared to other platforms in the world today. It took a little while, but Google came up with an Answer. The almighty Google Play Services, a suite of apps and tools that glue multiple versions of Android together into a mostly similar experience that any manufacturer can have access to. All those manufacturers have to do is agree to play nice in Google's sandbox, and basically do whatever Google says.
And Google says that 93% of all Android devices that they monitor are using the most recent version of Google Play Services, which means even if those devices aren't using the most recent version of Android they have access to almost all of the new features Google has announced within the last year. And 93% isn't bad at all, right?
So what's the problem here?
There are Android devices, and then there are Android devices.
The truth is neither Google's numbers, nor the most recent stats shown by the folks at Open Signal, offer an appropriate understanding of Android as a whole. If anything, that's the real problem when it comes to talking about Android as a platform. Google is perfectly happy talking about Android in terms they can control, meaning things with Play Services installed. And for the most part, those are the only numbers that many of us even care about. What we saw from Open Signal this week is the entire Android platform, with and without Google's services. The truth is, while we've been chilling out inside of Google's calm and friendly borders, the Wild West of Android devices has grown into something that is nearly impossible to properly define.
What do we consider an Android device? That sounds like an obvious question with an obvious answer, but is it really? Do we hold the aquarium controller with Android installed on it to the same standards as the HTC One M8? They both run Android, sure, but much in the same way that we accept how Linux distributions are not actually the same thing despite all being called Linux it seems like Android as a single unit shouldn't actually be considered as such. If I buy one of those $40 Android-on-a-stick kits that are out there and connect it to my TV so I can build my own home theater setup, should that really be counted in the same lot as my LG G3? Of course not, and more importantly these aren't devices that Google includes when they announce things like the 255 million phones that were shipped with Android installed in Q2 of this year.
There are some really good 'fragmented' ecosystems outside of Google's control.
It doesn't make sense to try and fit the entirety of Android into a single silo, but it doesn't make sense to only count things with Play Services installed either. With platforms out there like Amazon's Kindle Fire and Fire TV, Nokia's short-lived efforts, and manufacturers like Archos who stick to not needing Google, there's a lot of "no man's land" Android devices out there that lack a label. Even if Play Services are being considered exclusively, what about the Android devices that have had Play Services sideloaded thanks to the teams at Paranoid Android, AOKP, and so many others? The only thing we know for sure about how Google presents this information to us is that it is entirely at Google's discretion. We don't get details, and in most cases questions don't get answered. All Google has to do in order to make it look like the part of Android they have any control over is less fragmented is change the list, and since it's their list that is something they can do without telling any of us.
And what about markets that don't rely on Google Play but still use plenty of Android phones and tablets? China, for example, has an app store and services catalog that is totally separate from what those of us in the U.S. and UK use. These services tie into Chinese social networks and are essentially contained in their own space. While China is also commonly seen as the place where clones for almost every popular device comes from, and there's no real way to regulate how Android gets used there when compared to Play Services agreements, this is still a massive market of users that don't fall under the Play Services umbrella but still deserve to be part of the conversation when talking about Android marketshare and fragmentation.
Android fragmentation is still a conversation well worth having, but each of those conversations need to start with some kind of scope and definition. Android OEMs that are sitting inside of Google's Play Services sandbox have gotten better about updating their devices, and Play Services does a decent job filling in the gaps, but there are still plenty of devices that don't fit inside of this description. It doesn't make any more sense to talk about every single thing running Android than it does to only talk about the things with Play Services installed, unless you start that conversation with the appropriate context. If we only talk about things with Play Services installed, or if the conversation shifts to every single thing with Android installed on it as though that is something Google has any control over, we all lose.