Android platform distribution update

Ice Cream Sandwich makes gains, but Gingerbread still dominates

Elliot Bentley

A look at Google’s latest numbers reveal that Android fragmentation is still plaguing the ecosystem.

The first Android distribution numbers from 2013 are in, and they’re still not looking great. The ecosystem is still dominated by a two-year-old operating system, causing headaches for Java and web developers targeting the fragmented platform.

In August, we reported that the majority of Android users – 60.6% in total – were still running Android 2.3.3 (one of the ‘Gingerbread’ series), which dates back to December 2010. The good news is that the number of devices running Android 4.x (‘Ice Cream Sandwich’, first introduced in October 2011, and the newer ‘Jelly Bean’), has steadily climbed to reach over 40%. Unfortunately, while its share has dropped significantly, Gingerbread still rules the roost with 47.6% of the market.

Google makes available data collected from the Google Play store regarding the proportion of devices running each Android distribution. While useful to developers, it has also proved embarrassing to the company as the extent of Android ecosystem fragmentation – caused by a lack of centralised updates – has become apparent.

iOS 6, meanwhile, was installed on an estimated 60% of all iPhones within just ten days, despite significant controversy over the replacement of Google Maps with an inferior proprietary equivalent.

The prevalence of these older Android versions is a nightmare for developers, and is part of the reason why iOS is often prioritised despite an overall smaller market share. For example, apps from the BBC tend to launch on iOS first, with more features, because older and less capable devices are still so prevalent.

Daniel Danker, the BBC’s head of iPlayer, explained that even something as simple as streaming video can prove tricky: “Before Ice Cream Sandwich (an early variant of the Android operating system) most Android devices lacked the ability to play high quality video. If you used the same technology as we’ve always used for iPhone, you’d get stuttering or poor image quality. So we’re having to develop a variety of approaches for Android.”

He added: “The number one device contacting us is still the Samsung Galaxy S2, which can’t handle advanced video.”

It isn’t just bad news for Android app developers, but web devs too: the stock Android browser is notoriously poor, failing to support many features of HTML5 now taken for granted. It is particularly ironic since Google themselves pioneered ‘silent updates’ in Chrome, ensuring that users were kept up-to-date and preventing stagnation. The stock browser in 2.2 ‘Froyo’, which is still clinging on to 10% of market share, fails to even support the <audio> tag.

With new devices constantly being bought (and old ones being thrown away), progress is inevitable. But unless something changes, developers will have to continue to deal with the majority of users running outdated software, and accept it as a downside of Android’s semi-open nature.

Photo texture by Karl-Ludwig G. Poggemann. 

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