When Google announces a new version of Android, users are quick to clamor for it on their devices - only to become frustrated when the newest version never comes. For instance, the latest version of Android (4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich) was running on only 7.1% of Android devices as of June 1, 2012, more than six months after it was released. Last week, Google announced Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and, for the first time, a Platform Developer Kit to go with it. Will the PDK get Jelly Bean into users' hands more quickly?
Benefits: New Hardware Quicker to Market
The Platform Developer Kit is like a software developer kit (SDK), except it's intended for hardware manufacturers instead of software developers. It is meant to give chipset makers and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) an easy way to implement the newest version of Android in advance of its release, so new devices running the OS can be shipped immediately.
This is an important step for Google. In the past, the company has launched new Android versions by giving the update to one manufacturer, which would create a Nexus device (the Android flagship hardware line), and then releasing it to other OEMs after it had been announced. Then the other manufacturers would rush to implement the newest Android flavor, usually taking between two and six months. For instance, Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich was released late in 2011, but most new Android smartphones still ship with earlier versions.
Google’s old system effectively created a logjam. Manufacturers were put in the tricky position of trying to catch up to public demand for the newest Android software while still marketing existing devices running the older versions. This system has led to the scenario we see now: Most users are still waiting for the last version of Android (Ice Cream Sandwich) when the newest version (Jelly Bean) is announced. For people that care about getting the most up-to-date devices and software, this is incredibly frustrating.
It will take a while to know how well the PDK program is working. Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is a quality update to the Android platform, but it is an iterative update that brings better functionality and a couple new features. (Only one device, the Asus Nexus 7 tablet, has been announced that runs Jelly Bean.) Google has slowed its release schedule of new Android versions and now releases two updates a year, one major and one minor. (Apple tends to push one major and one minor update of iOS a year as well.) We have seen this in the past. Android 2.2 Frozen Yogurt was a major release while version 2.3 Gingerbread was a functional improvement. Version 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich was the last major update while 4.1 Jelly Bean is the minor update. By this calendar, we should expect a major update to Android by the end of 2012, and that is when we will truly see if the PDK program has taken effect with new devices from manufacturers like Samsung, Motorola, HTC, LG and Asus releasing new devices of Android 5.0 in time for the holiday season.
So the first benefit of the PDK will likely be more Android devices coming to market with the newest version of the operating system. But, that is not going to satisfy many consumers who already own Android phones and await an operating system update from manufacturers and mobile carriers.
What About Updates?
Many pundits looked at the PDK announcement and thought, “good, now updates will come faster” for existing Android devices.
That will not necessarily be the case.
Google may be the center of the Android universe, but it controls only a minor portion of what the manufacturers and carriers do with the platform. Manufacturers like to differentiate Android devices with their own custom skins, and carriers like to add their own applications (often referred to as bloatware). When it comes to updates, the manufacturers and carriers would much rather sell a new device than update an older one. Manufacturers benefit from more sales volume while carriers can lock consumers into new two-year contracts on subsidized devices.
The reason we see fewer updates coming to older Android devices is because there is not a lot of benefit to the manufacturers and carriers. Updating requires that manufacturer develop the newest version of Android to conform with their custom skins and hardware for devices they have already sold. Carriers have to push the update out over the air (OTA), a cost to them in terms of network bandwidth. Theoretically, the carrier does not need to be a part of the process (users can download directly from their computers or over Wi-Fi), but the best way to send updates to the mass of consumers is to send them OTA.
The Platform Development Kit theoretically will make it easier for manufacturers to implement new versions of Android into older devices. That is, if manufacturers want to do so at the expense of giving customers a bigger incentive to buy new devices. Manufacturers will likely give top-of-the-line devices quicker updates, but lower-end devices may never see updates, especially in markets outside the United States and Western Europe.
When it comes to getting updates to older Android devices in a timely fashion, there is really only one thing that Google can do: Take over the entire process itself. Enticing manufacturers and carriers has proven not to work because they do as they please, and there is little Google can do about it. If Google distributed Android updates directly (as Apple does with iOS and Microsoft with Windows Phone), we might see a higher volume of users with the newest versions. Yet, with 400 million Android activations across hundreds of devices from varying manufacturers across the globe, the logistics of a centralized update process are daunting.
The update issue will likely remain a problem for Google. At the Google I/O 2011 developers' conference, the company announced an Android Updates Alliance meant to get manufacturers and carriers to send the newest versions of Android to users shortly after launch. The Alliance is not something Google can effectively police, and it has dragged its feet. The PDK is a way for Google to make it easier to push out updates, but individual companies' priorities are likely to outweigh any directive coming from Mountain View.
Will more consumers get the newest version of Android quicker? Yes. But they may get it through new devices coming to market quicker rather than updates from manufacturers and carriers.