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How Google cleverly improved Android without releasing Android 4.3 at Google I/O

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Did you hear about the new version of Android(s goog)? No? That’s because there isn’t one, at least not in the traditional sense.

Google I/O 2013 Android activationsAlthough it was widely expected that Google would introduce Android 4.3 during Wednesday’s Google I/O keynote this week, it didn’t happen. Instead, more than three hours were spent talking about new services — a music subscription and multiplayer gaming — with developer tools that tie Android and Chrome together. These services and new developer tools actually help Google to update Android many of the 900 million Android activated devices without adding more fragmentation challenges brought by new a new software version.

Android enthusiasts are likely disappointed by any news on the Jelly Bean software front, leaving people like Computerworld’s JR Raphael wondering: What happened to Android?

I try to be as platform-agnostic as possible, but I’m certainly considered a member of the Android enthusiast crowd. And like others, I was disappointed when no new Android version appeared. I also felt let down with a lack of new hardware, but that’s another story. But I’m a consumer, so these thoughts make sense. And Google I/O is a developer event; not a consumer conference.

It turns out that every developer I’ve informally spoken with at Google I/O is actually relieved that Android 4.3 doesn’t exist yet. Note, it likely will arrive soon, as an updated Bluetooth stack for Android is coming arriving in the “coming months” with support for Bluetooth Smart and Smart Ready devices. So why would developers be happy there’s no new Android version?

Android 4.2.2 on the Galaxy S 4I can think of a couple of reasons. First, with a new Android version would come what Google calls an API level. Typically, new APIs and services are supported in the new version and these aren’t supported on devices with older software. But by offering new APIs and services now — which is exactly what Google did during day one of I/O — existing devices can take advantage of the new features. The new Hangouts app, Google Play Music All Access, and Google Cloud Messaging are good examples. Sure, some of these will require at least Android 4.0 but none of them require Android 4.3.

Second, developers told me they’re tired of taking heat for their apps not being supported on certain versions of Android. Adding another version would only make things potentially worse in that area, not better. Simply put: the features that Android is lacking, according to developers, are getting added through the new services that Google is releasing. And these new functions aren’t adding to any lingering fragmentation challenges.

Stock Galaxy S 4Frankly, Google has iterated Android relatively quickly in order to make it comparable to iOS(s aapl) in terms of design and usability. That’s good, but it came at a great cost: The pace of software change has been faster than hardware change. I don’t mean in the power and functions of hardware: Chips of all kinds have improved just as quickly as software. But consumers don’t switch devices that quickly, often waiting 18 to 24 months to upgrade a phone, for example.

Google can slow the pace of Android versions while improving the platform at the same time with this approach. And it can also allow more time for hardware makers and carriers push Android updates out, helping to get more users on the most current version of Android. While all this happens, consumers will also help the process, by upgrading to newer phones with Android 4.0 or better. Looking at the situation this way, it was actually a smart move for Google to focus less on the version of Android and instead improve the platform for developers and consumers with better APIs.

21 Responses to “How Google cleverly improved Android without releasing Android 4.3 at Google I/O”

  1. The terms of users’ contracts may determine how often they upgrade. My Galaxy SIII is prior-generation even though I only got it a few months ago, and I will have it for another 1.5 years if I use the very next upgrade opportunity. Several days ago, an Android “upgrade” was pushed onto my phone and my husband’s tablet — and he’s furious, The problem is that the new side tabs on my phone screen are obtrusive and the Android O/S on the tablet seems to be much slower to do anything, especially screen tilt resizing, than the previous release. “Code bloat” is the phrase that pops immediately to mind. We may wind up veering away from Android in future purchases because of this unpleasant development. My husband’s iPhone still manages to do things speedily and make the whole screen available for viewing. I like the concept of Android, but I would much rather have kept my previous version, and he feels even more strongly about that. Neither of us was given that option.

  2. Developers arent having a hard time keeping up – they don’t want to.

    How are they going to sell the s5 if the s4 is still supported next year?

    meanwhile little kids are porting the latest version of android onto 4 year old hardware the day after the code is available…

  3. What a lame arguement – tweens can port over new versions of android onto nearly anything and yet we are supposed to believe samsung has trouble keeping up even with teams of developers?

    Why don’t you admit the obvious the galaxy s4 is only going to be supported until the exact second when bean counters have figured they can force people onto the s5 with new features.

    • Dilip Andrade

      Actually, I don’t think that this is true… it looks like the SIII will be getting support for a while. With a 2 year contract cycle, it makes sense for a manufacturer to provide support for at least 2 years (which would be why the SIII is getting features from the S IV in the next update) so that people who buy it don’t start hating it and negatively comparing it to the iPhone which does an admirable job of allowing older handsets an OS upgrade path.

      I suspect that Android manufacturers will keep offering support for flagship devices, especially where they can keep some sort of hardware consistency between generations. This will allow devices to remain “current” as long as most of the customers who bought a flagship device are still under contract. Whether the support will last for 1, 2, or even 3 subsequent generations will have to be seen.

  4. Mikael Nilsson

    Wouldn’t it be cool if the manufacturers of the older handsets made the community made roms available through software update? That way practically everybody with an old phone could be up to speed without having to root their phones.

  5. Hector GR

    I’m an apple user and I just love iOS very much, however the platform seems rather slow at innivating these days, granted I am always using apps so I don’t notice things like the lack of true customization at all.

    However Android IMO has now caught up with iOS and quite possibly surpassed it in several key areas to the point that if I had not invested so heavily on apps and services on the apple ecosystem I’d switch in no time.

  6. rwm777

    Let down? Why? So what if they didn’t Android 4.3. You tech bloggers and bloggers ramped up the rumour mill about it being released at Google IO and now many of you are now sad and upset? Last time I checked Google (or any other company) don’t owe you are anybody else a thing.

  7. Michael

    “Frankly, Google has iterated Android relatively quickly in order to make it comparable to iOS in terms of design, and usability.”

    Well, frankly, I don’t want ANYTHING resembling that outdated, Apple designed, Apple controlled, and insulting piece of OS called iOS.

    My elderly, in terms of smartphones, original Motorola Droid running a 2.x version of Android, that I used from when it came out, until a few months ago when it finally went wonky on me, and was replaced by extended warranty with a Samsung Galaxy Nexus. The Droid walked all over my daughter in law’s iPhone 4, and the Nexus puts it to complete, and utter shame. She doesn’t really care for the iPhone, but is currently contractually bound to it. I don’t think her next smartphone will be an Apple product. I agree that they need to slow down with the Android upgrades for a while, get all smartphone users current to the latest iteration, THEN move ahead. Android is light years ahead of iOS as it is, it’s much better, customizable, feature rich, and very intuitive to use. 4.2.2 is good enough for now.

  8. David

    24 months? Try 4 years. I still have my nexus one. It runs a file system modified version of android 4.x (jelly bean) perfectly. Still allows me to meddle with lockscreen functions at my will and with a little tinkering to the new filesystem i can still install apps directly onto the microSD card without any trouble as well as archive apps.

    I’m not going anywhere anytime soon. I have my nexus one and iPhone 4s. I’m straight until google releases a TRUE nexus one killer complete with usable trackball, ATSC support so on and so forth. Right now the only thing that even comes close is the GzOne Type L just released may 2013 in japan.

    At the end of the day if google wants to keep me they have to really impress me first.

    • Meh, I bought the N1 at launch and still have it but phones have been released that simply destroy it. You’re hanging on for no reason. The trackball was so important to me until I realized that it’s irrelevant when you have a Note 2 or a GS4.

    • Colin

      I still have my N1 also, but mostly to play around with on a prepaid plan. Although I did not love the trackball as a pointing device (I will admit it is still better for fine tuning a correction, but it is just as easy to delete a whole word and re-type), I truly miss it as a notification light. The tiny LEDs in my Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 4 can’t compare to that huge glowing light. I wish Samsung could somehow incorporate an LED in the physical home button, or even a multi-color backlight ring behind/around the button.