Google has a problem. Android is being developed too fast while the adoption rates for the new versions are too low. The Android 2.x series started when Android 2.0 Eclair was released at the end of 2009. By the end of 2010, Froyo and Gingerbread (Android 2.2 and 2.3) were released and remained the dominant versions used until today. Since then, Google has released Android 3 (Honeycomb) and Android 4 (Ice Cream Sandwich). But, chances are that if you buy an Android phone today it will be running either 2.2 or 2.3.
The tablet market has slightly better adoption rates for the newer versions of Android, but this is mainly due to the fact that Android 3 was designed with tablets in mind. Even so, popular tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab still used Android 2.x, and its updated variant, the Galaxy Tab Plus, uses Android 3.2 and not Android 4.0.
Only 3% of Android devices run Ice Cream Sandwich and yet pundits are now talking about the release of Android 5, codenamed Jelly Bean. These are only rumors so far, and, at the recent Mobile World Congress 2012 event, Eric Schmidt said nothing about Android 5 during his keynote. However Android 5 will be released one day, if only because 5 comes after 4 and Android will continue to be developed.
But Google’s problem is it needs to find a way to convince device manufacturers to release Android updates and it needs to make this process easier for users. Apple seem to be winning in this respect, with a recent report finding that 77% of customers upgraded to iOS 5.1 within 14 days of its release. 3% adoption of ICS, 77% of iOS 5.1. The difference is huge.
The implications of the slow adoption rates are threefold:
First, users aren’t getting the best that Google has to offer. Android 4.0 is superior to Android 2.x in many ways (see Android 2.3 Gingerbread vs. Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich), and yet, these benefits aren’t being passed to the user. Assuming that Android 5.0 will be better than Android 4 and that it will add neat new features, how long will it be until customers get these new features?
The iPhone 3GS was released in 2009 and it can run the latest version of iOS. I think you will be hard pushed to find an Android device from 2009 that has support for ICS, let alone Jelly Bean (although this may change when CyanogenMod 9 comes out). LG has made a commitment to bring Android 5.0 to all of its 2012 handsets (with the sole condition that the phone can support Android 5.0), but there is no such commitment for the Android phone you bought last year.
Second, there is the question of security. Security vulnerabilities are discovered almost daily in all computer operating systems and applications – from Windows XP to Mac OS X 10.7, from Flash to Chrome. Companies like Google spend a lot of money and energy in fixing these vulnerabilities and making their products secure. However, if these changes and improvements aren’t passed on to the customer, then their efforts are in vain. For example, Android 4.0 introduced full device encryption allowing you to encrypt all the data on your phone including all the application data, music, downloaded information, and so on. Only 3% of Android users have this facility at their disposal today.
Thirdly, developers are left trying to support older versions of Android and have to ignore new features as they try to ensure that their apps and games will run on the majority of devices. For example, Android 4 added a new social API which allows app developers to use a new unified store for contacts, profile data, stream items, and photos. With the new API, any app or social network (with permission from the user) can contribute contacts and make them accessible to other apps and networks. Great for social networking fanatics. But if the devices out there in the real world are still running Android 2.x this API is irrelevant. Developers have to ignore it.
This could all change once Google finally gets its hands on Motorola. If Google does the right thing and offers free upgrades to all the devices it releases, and uses Motorola to showcase the power of Android, it should shame the other manufacturers into releasing upgrades for their hardware. This way the users win, developers win, Android wins.
Google could already be doing this by releasing the Chrome beta exclusively for Android 4.0. This means that only a small number of users will be able to use the new browser (compared to the total number of Android users), and yet Google is insisting on ICS. Is this for technical reasons? Maybe. But Firefox is available for all devices running Android 2.1 or above (as long as they have 512MB of RAM).
Is Ice Cream Sandwich the Windows Vista of the Android world? When the netbook phenomenon struck, Microsoft was forced to extend the life of Windows XP as it was the only Windows that was able to chug along happily on these lower specification laptops. Windows Vista was way to heavy.
Is this true of ICS? Android 4.0 does indeed impose some minimum requirements in terms of memory and GPU capabilities. For example, all devices running Android 4.0 are required to support hardware-accelerated 2D drawing. Should Google be looking at a lighter version of Android 5 that can run on today’s devices with, say, only 256MB of memory and with a lesser GPU?
Do you agree with me? Or do you think I got it wrong? How do you think Google could improve adoption rates? Let me know by adding a comment below. I promise to reply to all sensible comments!