Could Froyo and Gingerbread become Android’s IE6?

May 21, 2012
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Android-Jelly-Bean
A little while ago I posed the question: Is Android 5.0 Jelly Bean too much, too soon? The reaction from the net was lively, with most people falling into one of two camps. First, those who want the latest and best, and they want it now! And those who say that, as long as the phone works, most people don’t care about the version of Android on their device. Well, now the app developers have spoken ¬†– and perhaps they matter the most!

There are, of course, three main groups in the Android ecosystem: There is Google (and the handset manufactures), there are the consumers, and there are the app developers. Android is a great mobile OS, but where would it be without Angry Birds or a Facebook app?

A few days ago, San Francisco hosted the¬†AnDevCon III technical conference for software developers building Android apps. There were lots of top people there from Google, Barnes & Noble, HTC and so on.¬†And, according to InfoWorld.com, developers at the conference aren’t in a rush to see Android 5.0 Jelly Bean, but rather they are¬†concentrating¬†on Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.

The problems that Android app developers face were summed up nicely by¬†David Mathisen, of Allegiance Software: “I want to make sure that everybody can use our app that has an Android phone.” And that is the main issue. No developer in their right mind will¬†release¬†an app that only works on ICS. With a little under 5% of the Android¬†population¬†using Android 4.0, app developers need to make sure their apps are compatible with Android 2.2 Froyo¬†and Android 2.3 Gingerbread. Talk of Android 5.0 Jelly Bean is at best theoretical and even when Google releases the software (and the source code), it will be six months or even a year before there is a¬†significant¬†number of real world users.

This “fragmentation” can be a pain for app developers who need to spend extra time (and money) making sure apps work across the board. “Sometimes, you need to implement different tools to actually make the application work in different versions,” said Teresa Jimenez Arreola, of France Telecom R&D.

In considering the possible impact of Jelly Bean on the Android ecosystem, William van de Lagemaat, a “new¬†technology” consultant, made the excellent point that the Android 2.x series could become Android’s IE 6. He is drawing a parallel with the difficulty web developers have in ensuring that web pages are viewable across the¬†myriad¬†of different web browsers that exist today, in particular Internet Explorer 6 has stuck around much longer that it should and has been the bane of web developer’s (and Microsoft’s) life.

If he is right then this is bad news for app developers and consumers alike. If Android 2.2 and Android 2.3 stick around for another two or even three years, and between them manage to count for anything over 25% of Android users, then everyone has a problem. App and game innovation will be limited as developers  will want to use the most popular version to increase revenues. Everything will need to remain Android 2.x compatible which will leave ICS and Jelly Bean without value add apps.

What can Google do about this?

I am tempted to say that Google already missed its chance to get this right, but I think that it can learn something from Microsoft. Windows XP was a¬†runaway¬†success, so successful in fact that even eights years after it was originally released you could buy a new PC with XP pre-installed on it. The reason for its longevity was Windows Vista. It was a disaster and it didn’t run well on older computers. The answer was Windows 7 which, from the get-go, was slimmer and faster, plus Microsoft released Windows 7 Starter edition which was even slimmer for netbooks and PCs will less resources.

One of the reasons that handset¬†manufactures¬†can’t put ICS on some devices is that a) they don’t have enough RAM, b) they don’t have enough flash memory to hold the OS. Google¬†should¬†be working to make an ICS Lite which fits onto older devices. Failure to do this will result in years of pain as the Android 2.x series dies a slow but lingering death.

What do you think?

Do you think I am right? Or am I just fussing about nothing? Let me know what you think… But be sure of one thing, if Google get this wrong it will hamper Android development for years to come. As always, all sane comments will get a reply!

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