Google unveiled its next-generation mobile platform called Android L at its I/O developer conference last month, and if things play out, as I would expect them to, we could see devices powered by this platform being available before the year is out. Along with a new look, Android L brings with it better performance, better battery life, better security, and over 5,000 new APIs for developers to leverage.
Problem is, Android L will face the same problems that have faced earlier incarnations of Android, and that is that the migration rate will be glacially slow, and that the majority of existing Android users will need to buy new devices in order to benefit.
The writing is already on the wall. Android 4.4 — codenamed KitKat — was announced by Google in September of 2013, and made its way onto new devices before the year was out, but the usage share currently only stands at around 13 percent.
Compare this to the previous release, codenamed Jelly Bean. This release, which includes versions 4.1.x, 4.2.x and 4.3, power almost 60 percent of Android devices, making it the single most popular version.
The most popular version of Android is version 4.1.x, and this powers almost a third of all devices. This was first released in July 2012 — and the last update was released in October 2012 — and it shows just how slow Android updates trickle into the ecosystem.
Compare this to the situation that Apple enjoys, where a whopping 89 percent of iOS users are running iOS 7 or higher, which was released in September 2013.
The problem with getting users up to the latest version is not because of a lack of interest. Indeed, the speed and ferocity with which iOS users upgrade to the latest version shows that users clearly are interested in new versions of operating systems.
The problem with Android is that Google is the beginning of a long system that updates have to go through.
When Google releases a new version of Android, device OEMs have to then customize the release, add their own tweaks and personalizations. Then, for smartphones and tablets that are hooked to a carrier contract, the carriers have to add their own branding. The problem is made worse by the fact that neither the OEMs nor the carriers feel there's much of a benefit in pushing free software updates to customers, and would rather focus on selling owners a new device.
Another problem with such fragmentation and slow pace of updates is that users stuck on older versions of Android are being left vulnerable to malware and data theft as a result of bugs in the code. Take, for example, the recently discovered Pileup bugs which leave every Android-powered smartphone and tablet — more than a billion devices in all —vulnerable to malware thanks to privilege escalation issues.
The slow pace of adoption of new versions of Android also affects developers. Not only are they forced to continue to support a myriad of what are essentially obsolete versions of Android, but it also means that they can't fully take advantage of the new Android APIs in their apps.
So, no matter how great Android L turns out to be, the truth of the matter is that the majority of Android users won't see it, and by the time it gains any real traction it will be old, obsolete, and won't be seeing any further updates.
There's only two ways to get Android updates rapidly, that's either to buy Nexus-branded hardware, or by new hardware on a regular basis.