Gingerbread finally catching up to Froyo; how fast will Ice Cream Sandwich catch on?

Google Android logoThe latest Android version statistics released by Google show that Gingerbread is finally catching up to Froyo. As the release of Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) approaches—with the promise of a unified experience across tablets and phones—one of the big questions is how long it will take for the new version to achieve critical mass.

Roughly ten months have passed since Gingerbread's debut. The version now accounts for approximately 40 percent of Android devices with access to the Android Market. Froyo, which still has the largest share, is installed on 45 percent of Android devices. Versions prior to 2.2 add up to about 15 percent of Android devices.

Although Android's interoperability features largely insulate developers from the differences between handsets, the fragmentation between versions poses some real-world challenges. Developers have to choose between using the latest features or providing backwards compatibility. That kind of decision is made on a spectrum, based on the market penetration of the various versions.

Not much changed for developers between Froyo and Gingerbread, but the ICS update will be particularly significant due to the shift towards developing for multiple form factors. One of the reasons why Honeycomb applications have been slow to emerge is that developers aren't willing to break backwards compatibility and sacrifice the large audience of users on devices with older versions of the operating system in order to use new APIs.

The ICS adoption curve is going to be a major factor in determining how quickly developers move to support the new APIs and build applications that will feel native on Android tablets. Developers won't fully take advantage of the opportunities that Ice Cream Sandwich will offer for building applications that seamlessly span form factors until the new version is ubiquitous enough that it can be targeted without concerns about losing too much of the audience to backwards compatibility issues.

Of course, it's worth noting that Google has already taken some positive steps to bridge the gap. The company released a backport of Honeycomb's important Fragments framework, allowing those APIs to be used through a static library on previous versions of the operating system. If they can expand the availability of backported features in this manner for other key ICS APIs, it could make the transition more seamless.

The handset manufacturers are often blamed for the slow update timeline. Indeed, there are some that perform better than others in this respect, suggesting that the lagging vendors be doing better. There are some hardware vendors that simply don't care about providing ongoing support for existing devices because they would rather see consumers buy new hardware.

Part of the problem, however, is the limited availability of Android source code during the development process. Google's tendency of developing new versions behind closed doors and doing a code drop at the end of each cycle makes it difficult for the hardware vendors who aren't launch partners to do continuous integration and make sure that their customizations are ready for a new version of the platform on an incremental basis.

The fragmentation that results from the version spread and consumer concerns about long-term support have prompted Google and the handset manufacturers to start taking the update problem more seriously. One of the most positive developments that came out of Google I/O was an initiative that Google is advancing to provide update guarantees and get the hardware vendors committed to consistent update cycles.

That effort is still at an early stage, but it would be a big win for users and developers if Android stakeholders can get a plan in place for rolling out ICS to as many consumers as possible on an aggressive timeline. If the Gingerbread to ICS transition follows the same pattern as the Froyo to Gingerbread transition, then it could take almost a year before the full third-party Android developer base can take advantage of what ICS has to offer.

Source: Ars Technica

Tags: Android

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