When competitors knock on Google's Android mobile operating system, they dismiss its growth because a majority of smartphones in the wild are running a version of Android released three years ago. Android version 2.3—Gingerbread—announced in 2010 and rolled out to new smartphones in 2011, has been the most widely used flavor of the operating since shortly after its release.
That is no longer the case.
Gingerbread has finally been unseated from the top of Android distribution mountain, ceding its placing to the newest flavor of the operating system, version 4.1+ Jelly Bean, according to new stats released by Google on Monday. Jelly Bean is running on 37.9% of Android devices while Gingerbread is running on 34.1%. The stepping stone between Gingerbread and Jelly Bean—Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich—is running on 23.3% of Android devices.
Gingerbread became the most used version of Android in November 2011, unseating version 2.2 Froyo. Gingerbread didn't look back for all of 2012 and well into 2013 until Jelly Bean finally caught up this month. Gingerbread fell below the 50% mark in March this year.
A Representative Sample?
Google reports the distribution of Android versions in the wild every month. It is meant to help mobile app developers who need to target their apps towards specific functions found in different versions, but is often used by the media and Google's competition to track how wide spread new versions of Android have become.
Google changed the method on how its reports Android distribution earlier this year. Instead of reporting the numbers of Android devices that have touched Google's servers (through Google apps like Gmail or the search bar), it now only reports on devices that have accessed the Google Play store within a one-month period. Google said it changed the methodology to better represent active Android users who frequently shop for apps and other content in Google Play. As the distribution dashboard is meant for developers, why include users that are not looking for apps?
The argument against the new methodology is that it does not provide a true representative sample of all the Android devices in use around the world. Many cheaper Android devices sold in foreign markets such as China ship with Gingerbread as the default operating system and are never updated and do not access the Google Play store. Jelly Bean has been rising in the distribution rankings since Google changed the methodology while Gingerbread has been shrinking.
Jelly Bean's Ascension
It is easy to point at the change in reporting as the reason for Gingerbread's decline. That would also ignore the reality of the market. While many budget Android devices are still being shipped with Gingerbread, the vast majority of new Android smartphones and tablets are equipped with version 4.0 or higher. All of the top Android devices released this year use either version 4.1 or 4.2 (both Jelly Bean). The Samsung Galaxy S4 (which has shipped 20 million units since being released in April) has Android 4.2 while the critically acclaimed HTC One has version 4.1.
Users that bought a Gingerbread devices in 2011 are starting to upgrade as their contracts with their cellular carriers run out or their old devices begin to fail. Anybody that has used the same smartphone for more than 18 months or so will tell you that smartphones begin to lose functionality after a little more than a year. When those consumers return to the buyers market, they are finding cheaper Android devices that ship with Jelly Bean or Ice Cream Sandwich as the default, not Gingerbread.
App developers building for Android have long complained about the fragmentation of the platform. The necessity to provide backwards functionality to Gingerbread has been especially painful as Android has become more mature, less prone to bugs and crashes and become feature rich. As an operating system, Android took a massive jump in peformance and functionality between Gingerbread and Ice Cream Sandwich and most developers prefer to hit the top end of what the operating system can do. For these developers, the faster that Gingerbread dies, the better.