iPhone 5 Launch Exposes the Biggest Difference Between iOS and Android

Today the iPhone 5 launched. In sync with the product launch was a major software release, iOS 6, which came out earlier this week. And it resurfaced what is arguably the biggest difference between Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.

The differences between the two systems are myriad, both in terms of software and the hardware they run on. They also have many striking similarities—ones that all modern mobile platforms share. The biggest difference between the two, however, is both a software and a hardware issue.

That difference is what’s most commonly referred to as “fragmentation.” Setting aside the debate whether fragmentation is terrible or a non-issue, it’s clearly something that places iOS and Android on opposite ends of the spectrum.

One day after iOS 6 launched, 15% of users had updated their software, according to a report from Chitika. 48 hours in, Audiobooks reported that nearly 30% of users had updated their iPhone’s operating system to iOS 6.

Let’s compare that to Android. A day after Google released Jelly Bean, or 4.1, about 0.1% of users were running the system. Two months in, that number had climbed to only 1.2%.

Ice Cream Sandwich, or 4.0, is a year old. It’s still on less than 17% of Android devices. Most Android users are still stuck on some version in the 2.0-range, which debuted in October 2009—yes, three years ago.

Whose fault is it? A little bit of everyone’s… but mostly no one’s. Fragmentation is inevitable with software that’s open and free like Android is. Manufacturers make phones built for one OS and those phones wind up incompatible for the next one for any of a variety of reasons. Meanwhile, users are stuck with those phones. And developers are stuck making their apps look good across a thousand different devices.

Most Android users, and even many Apple users, often criticize the company’s “walled garden” approach to integrating (and keeping closed) hardware and software. But this is one huge benefit that comes with Apple’s strategy: super easy software updates and, as a result, incredibly fast adoption among iPhone (and iPad) owners.

iOS users love this perk. And developers love it too. It’s one the reasons why Apple’s App Store has far more apps than any other platform including Google’s (there are currently more than 700,000).

This doesn’t make iOS any better or worse than Android. But it does make the two extremely different.

No wonder mobile platforms are as polarizing as politics and religion these days.