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Google’s Android operating system has come a long way since its unveiling almost a decade ago, and it was probably tough to originally foresee that the OS would go on to claim the largest install base of any consumer operating system. In that time, Android has undergone a number of user interface overhauls and has introduced a huge selection of key features, from the first CDMA network support with Android Donut to mobile payments and fingerprint scanning technologies in today’s flagships. The OS has even expanded into the automotive and wearables markets.

Today, Google’s latest Android 7.0 and 7.1 Nougat versions are making every day tasks more convenient with a new split-screen mode, redesigned notifications and quick replies, customizable quick settings, and multi-language support. At the same time, Android is pushing the boundaries with support for more powerful and more efficient hardware components, and even stepping into the realms of virtual reality.

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Just some of the key features and milestones passed by Android in the past four OS generations.

While all of these features are very welcome, they’re only any good if consumers can actually make use of them. To build up a bigger picture about where Android is at right now, we’ve trawled back through years of Google’s OS distribution data. This allows us to see how the mobile ecosystem has changed over the years and how the launch of Nougat is getting on compared with previous OS version.

Android OS since 2014

It’s going to take a while for Android Nougat to catch up with the pack, and in the meantime it’s 5.0 Lollipop that retains the crown as the most popular version of Android installed at the moment. The version sits at a 34% share, followed by 6.0 Marshmallow on 26.3%, and KitKat on 24%. Importantly, December finally saw Marshmallow overtake KitKat, a process that has taken just over a year to complete. Lollipop also overtook the 2 generation old KitKat at around the same time back at the end of 2015.

Top 3 OS shares in Dec 2016: 5.0 Lollipop - 34%, 6.0 Marshmallow - 26.3%, KitKat - 24%

It’s a little disappointing to see that version 5.0 is still a fair bit more common that last year’s 6.0 release. Although the data reveals that it has historically taken around 18 months for the latest version of Android to become the most widespread. Fragmentation, which we’ll take a closer look at in a minute, remains an issue. Lollipop’s share appears to have peaked at 35.8%, just shy of KitKat’s peak at 41.4%, and miles behind Jelly Bean’s 62% high back in 2014.

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Android 6.0 Marshmallow appears to be on the same track as Lollipop and KitKat before it, with an approximately 2.5% share growth rate each month. Although the OS is behind its predecessors for share at the end of the year. Lollipop reached 29.5% by December 2015, while KitKat grabbed a 33.9% share in the same month of 2014. This doesn’t mean that adoption is slower as such, as there are many more phones on the market now than in previous years. But it does suggest that consumer are either keeping hold of older handsets, or that manufacturers haven’t been updating their older models for as long.

While Marshmallow and Nougat are the only two OS numbers showing growth anymore, the rate of decline for existing versions appears quite slow. Interestingly, Jelly Bean’s rate of decline has decreased from roughly -1.8% per month in 2015 to -1.2% per month in 2016.

Nougat launch and fragmentation

Android 7.0 Nougat, Google’s latest version of the Android OS, arrived in October of this year, and things are off to their typical slow start. Only 0.4% of devices are currently running 7.0, down slightly from Android Marshmallow’s 0.5% market penetration by early December. It typically takes around 6 months for Google’s latest OS version to arrive as a major force, following the launch of new flagship devices early in the new year and updates hitting mainstream handsets. So we will have to wait until the end of Q1 2017 to see if Nougat adoption accelerates as quickly as previous releases.

Nougat is entering an ecosystem that is more fragmented than ever before. Jelly Bean has simply refused to die.

However, one identifiable trend at this early stage of Nougat’s rollout is that it’s entering an ecosystem that is more fragmented than ever before. KitKat, Lollipop, and Marshmallow are all similarly dominant versions of Android right now, but even Jelly Bean is managing to hang on to a notable share. This is due to the increasing number of handsets on the market each year and a slowdown in global handset sales growth, combined with the fact that the majority older handsets are not being updated to the latest version of Android.

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If we compare the top two version numbers shortly after a new release, Marshmallow and Lollipop account for 60.3% of the market just after the latest release, a smaller percentage than ever before. Back with the rollout of Marshmallow, Lollipop and KitKat accounted for 66.1%, and KitKat and Jelly Bean held a whopping 82.6% combined share back in 2014 and the rollout of Lollipop. At a glance, Android was much more unified back before the launch of Lollipop than it is today, although the numerous versions of Jelly Bean hidden by this data complicates the debate somewhat.

While some level of fragmentation is inevitable as handset support ends and new handsets are purchased, Android’s problem with a lack of updates appears to be worsening rather than improving. What’s more, 2012’s Jelly Bean has simply refused to die. This is rather worrisome when we consider that these older handsets are missing out on important security updates, with the vast majority of handsets never set to enroll in Google’s monthly security patch scheme.

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Android Gingerbread, KitKat, and Nougat home screens.

Google first unveiled Android to the word in 2007 when it founded the Open Handset Alliance, and it’s clear that the OS has come a long way since then, both in terms of features and its importance to the mobile market. There are a few persistent problems with fragmentation that the company has been unable to solve, but with more and more Android core systems and features now updated through the Play Store rather than major system updates, Nougat could finally be the start of an era where fragmentation matters less.

Robert Triggs

Lead Technical Writer covering SoCs, displays, cameras, and everything in between. In his spare moments you’ll find him building audio gadgets.