The Fragmentation of Software

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One of the strengths of Windows Phone at the moment is the lack of fragmentation on the platform. But fragmentation isn't restricted to the OS or the hardware, it can apply to software as well. And if Windows Phone isn't careful, then it risks upsetting the unified nature of the platform through first and third party software titles.

What has triggered this is Nokia's ESPN application. Like many, I follow Major League Baseball (MLB), but being based in the UK I'm relying on the Internet to deliver me timely news and keep me up to speed with the sport (along with the live games broadcast at 2am in the morning on ESPN America's TV channel). The Windows Phone ESPN application looked perfect for my needs, with Live Tile access, news articles, and video clips.

Alas MLB was nowhere to be seen in the list of sports on the screen, and so I returned to free websites in the browser.

Yet when the Nokia Lumia 900 arrived from across the Atlantic, and I opened up the ESPN app, there was the MLB news option. Yet the version numbers of the application were both the same, the code appeared identical, I was just being presented with different options. What gives? Regional fragmentation - I was denied MLB simply because I was in the UK. A fair amount of jumping around the Windows Phone settings, pinning of live tiles, and restarting the handset and I finally have ESPN's MLB news on my Lumia 800 in the UK.

[For the record - switch your phone's System Locale, under region+language to English (United States); restart phone; open up ESPN and find the MLB section; in the section, select pin live tile; switch system locale back to home territory; restart phone. While you won't have the MLB option in the application, the deep linking live tile will open the MLB section and give you full access to the media.]

What a palaver.

This problem isn't alone, and I guarantee that there will always be a simple rationale behind the decisions - and in this world of reducing complexity it's not surprising that less options would be put on show. It's just that the lack of thinking outside the box (or outside the borders) is a worrying sign for every computing platform, not just Windows Phone.

In some cases there are perfectly understandable reasons that one country sees a pool of content, and one country sees another. Music is the obvious example, with the regional licensing of music replicated in the Windows Marketplace. But that doesn't explain why the "podcast" section of the Windows Marketplace is limited to only the United States, leaving all the other territories without a really useful resource.

One of the attractions of Windows Phone to developers as it currently stands is the relative lack of fragmentation - you can effectively write once for the platform, and you can hit every Windows Phone device out there (yes, the lower memory requirements in Mango/Refresh have made that a touch more challenging, but it's still possible with smart coding). But fragmentation comes in many forms, and if we're not careful, the regionality of software might become an important issue.

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And that has me worried. The casual way in which software simply decides to look at one region, and not just ignoring everywhere else but actively blocking it happening, will fragment a platform just as badly as code bases and changing hardware specifications. Windows Phone is hopefully at the start of a major period of growth, and the principles that are accepted now will be the ones it will have to live with for the rest of its life.

I want a platform that developers can work on comfortably. I want a platform that many handset manufacturers can contribute to and use to grow the user-base, while still allowing them to differentiate themselves in the market (to be fair,  this still needs some work). And I want a platform where the first party and third party software will always work across the full range of handsets, no matter who is the manufacturer, the network supplier, or the physical location of the handset.

It is far easier for all that to happen if the basic themes and ideas of these are in place before the hockey stick growth builds up momentum. It's a small detail, but one that will pay off down the line. And right now, in the big ticket applications, I don't see these small details being considered.

Perhaps I'm being paranoid, but it's the little things like this that are either endearing, or an annoyance, on a platform. And I want Windows Phone to be filled with the former.