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

SundarPichaiGoogleIO2013-1

Did you hear about the new version of Android? 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 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.

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