Platform Fragmentation: Yes, There IS a Good KindPosted on October 10, 2011
The other day, I was involved in what seems to be a regular occurrence for me; a discussion on platform fragmentation. For the non-mobile, non-techie folks out there, this concept refers to the idea that a given platform (say, Android) has aspects about it that open itself up to differentiation. In theory, the differentiation could be a good thing, but usually the term is only discussed when the results are negative (especially for consumer/users). BTW – while I used the phrase “non-mobile”, I don’t mean that the ideas around platform fragmentation are limited to mobile devices. The same thing can apply to any platform.
Well, a couple of interesting thoughts occurred to me during this particular platform fragmentation discussion. First, I found someone in the discussion tried to make an argument that just didn’t fit in defense of the particular platform in question (in this discussion, it was Windows Phone 7.5). The argument was, in essence, that “platform fragmentation” only occurs if the platform causes a given application to work on one device and not the other. I found this argument to be the equivalent of something like changing the dimensions of a soccer field in the middle of a game and then calling everything that was inbounds before suddenly out-of-bounds. It just doesn’t work that way.
From my perspective, I look at a platform from a very gestalt point of view. In other words, the whole of the platform is greater than the sum of its parts. This includes all aspects of the platform. In the mobile world, this includes any OEM relationships, mobile carrier relationships and the ability of the platform (in this discussion, it was the Windows Phone 7.5 OS as a major factor in the overall platform discussion) to allow for customization by the other players in the ecosystem. Remember – unlike Apple with iOS as a platform, there is literally no other “players in the game”; their manufacturing partners have specifications dictated to them, and mobile carriers have no ability to customize other than adding software (and only with Apple’s blessing). Now, with all this in mind, it occurred on me that there can be good aspects to platform fragmentation. The first example came out of the very discussion where someone was trying to change the parameters around what defines platform fragmentation.
A platform that allows for device manufacturers to differentiate through hardware capabilities opens the door for platform fragmentation. However, that type of fragmentation enables:
- Differing screen qualities
- Differing audio qualities
- Integration with other technologies (take DLNA, for example, allowing for streaming from the phone to other devices)
Now, if this particular form of platform fragmentation is allowed without altering the fundamental user experience (something I will touch upon in a moment), then it becomes a “win-win” for both devices manufacturers and consumers. Device manufacturers can compete through hardware and feature capabilities, while consumers have more choice without fear of a differentiator altering expected functionality. The end result – a positive type of platform fragmentation.
From a “bad” point of view, there are in my opinion several major types of platform fragmentation. They include -
- Allowing for functional changes that break consistent user experiences. The scenario that was positive above becomes negative if a device manufacturer adds or removes capabilities that make application no longer function or change the way users have to perform basic tasks (turning on WiFi, for example). When this happens, moving from device to device within the platform makes for a painful new learning curve and removes the expectation of basic functionality.
- Allowing for a device manufacturer or carrier to alter the basic user interface experience. Think “skinning” or “theming” here. While there can be an argument (both for and against) allowing users to change the fundamental appearance of the user interface, allowing devices to be sold with this as a default leads to a number of issues, including:
- Altering the fundamental expectation of user experience;
- Creating confusion through a lack of recognition of a platform. This was often the case with the old Windows Mobile platform and now occurs quite often with Android devices. Users do not even recognize and cannot identify what platform the device is running, never mind easily perform common tasks. Again, user frustration and new learning curves result when moving from device to device within the platform;
- Difficulty for the consumer in determining what device is best for them within a platform. The number of returns of devices because of issues like the ones listed above lead to dissatisfied consumers.
- Creating splits within the platform to accommodate hardware and features. Anyone remember the confusion caused by Windows Mobile Standard (non-touchscreen) vs. Windows Mobile Professional (touchscreen)? How about Android Honeycomb/3.x (tablet-specific) vs. the Android 2.x variants (tablet and non-tablet)? These splits result in software compatibility issues and even greater confusion/frustration for the consumer.
I guess the points I am trying to make here are, quite simply:
- Platform fragmentation almost always will occur to some level with technology, especially when the technology includes an ecosystem with more than one vested interest.
- There can be good forms of platform fragmentation that allow for grater choice for consumers without confusing, frustrating or hurting them.
To argue the basic definition of platform fragmentation shouldn’t be the approach when it occurs. Instead, the argument should focus on the benefit or detriment of the fragmentation in question.