Google took major steps last week to boost adoption of Android L, the latest version of its mobile operating system. In fact, the company did something it has never done before: It released a developer preview.
Since the beginning,Google’s approach to major Android releases followed roughly the same format. The announcement typically involved a partner making a Nexus flagship reference device, with the newest version of the platform shipping to developers and other manufacturers so they could build apps and devices for it.
This process actually slowed adoption by consumers, manufacturers and developers. After Google announced a new version, it often took companies such as HTC and Samsung as long as three to six months to build new devices for it, or ship software updates for older phones and tablets. Meanwhile, developers hesitated to build apps optimized for it because so few consumers hadthe latest version.
For instance, the latest version of Android—version 4.4, dubbed “KitKat”—was announced eight months ago, on October 31, 2013. Since then, only 13.6% of Android devices that touch Google’s servers run KitKat. In comparison, 14.9% of devices run Android 2.3 Gingerbread, which was announced in December of 2010.
Now with Android L, developers and manufacturers will have the entire summer to get apps, smartphones and tablets ready for release when L drops this fall (presumably with a new Android Nexus device). The approach is more akin to how Apple and Microsoft release major updates for iOS and Windows Phone, respectively, and marks a major shift in strategy for Google.
So, why did Google change course and offer a developer preview months ahead of Android L’s official commercial release? Google’s head of Android engineering Dave Burke elucidated the company’s thoughts in an interview with ReadWrite at Google I/O last week.
“I think the scope of the platform got so big—and the application ecosystem got so big—that it is kind of near impossible to do a big release, and QA, and test it internally, and know you nailed it,” Burke said. “Of course, we’ve got a great QA team … but the reality is that if you launch, you’re going to break something unless you have developer feedback. We’ve just reached critical mass where we had to change the model, so myself and a couple other people were pushing strongly for this.”
Will It Increase New Android Adoption?
The biggest test for Android L’s developer preview will come in the form of rapid adoption. Will manufacturers be able to ship the new version to older phones more quickly? And will they have their brand new devices ready when Android L drops commercially, just in time for the holiday shopping season?
Historically, this hasn’t been the case. Android 4.4 was announced on Halloween 2013, and the first round of major KitKat devices didn’t come until the late winter and early spring of 2014. Previous versions of Android saw similar release patterns.
Developers and handset makers didn’t have the early access they needed for timely product roll-outs, largely because Google didn’t want to release unfinished software. “We have this challenge that, when we are developing stuff internally, we want to keep it confidential,” said Burke. “Because some of the time, you are just iterating. You are not ready to show it to the public, because you are still experimenting.”
Now, he believes the company’s new tack should expedite adoption. Partners equipped with the developer preview will be able to “move in parallel” with Google, he said. “My expectation is that L will have faster adoption than previous versions of Android.
“We’ll see, but I think it has a good chance,” he said.
Android Adoption Rate Is Important For Developers
Android is a fragmented system by nature. Google releases the Android Open Source Project—or AOSP, the code that manufacturers use to build Android devices—for nearly every version of the operating system (except for the Android 3.0 Honeycomb update).
While the open source strategy of Android led it to be the world’s most used operating system, it also created an incredibly diverse system, fraught with hardware variations that don’t always mesh well (or sometimes at all) with the platform’s apps.
This hardware diversity creates significant problems for developers. Because, sometimes, you just need the compass to work like it says it is going to work. (You know, point to true north.) To a certain extent, hardware fragmentation will be practically impossible for Android to solve in its current open-source state. Google can try to streamline adoption of hardware standards running the most current version of the operating system with its the low-end Android One and the Android Silver project to come next year, but Silver will only affect the top of the market.
Operating system fragmentation causes a different kind of headache for developers, something that Google can address more directly with the developer preview of Android L. In Android, certain technologies are not supported in older versions of the operating system—such as advances in Bluetooth Low Energy and Near Field Communication (NFC). For instance, if a developer wants to support Bluetooth LE in an app, that developer’s potential user base will be severely limited by the number of Android devices that are actually equipped with the technology.
Android L could help ease many of these issues—that is, if the developer preview succeeds in speeding up adoption cycles for new Android smartphones and operating system upgrades.
If you add up everything that is in Android L—includingthe new material design for streamlined user experience across apps and devices, the Android One reference design project, and the developer preview that lets manufacturers and developers catch up to Google—the company has added a lot to Android while also simplifying it for everybody. Or, at least, that’s what the company hopes.
“The thing that I observed is that, early in Android, people [manufacturers] went way off, and now everything has become tighter,” Burke said. “People are really starting to appreciate simplicity. Keep it simple and don’t get in the way of the user. It is just like a learning process that the industry is going through and it is just a learning process. It is great to see.”
All images by ReadWrite