You know that Android Versions dashboard? It matters less and less for developers. And it’s been irritating me for months now that the mobile-device commentariat apparently hasn’t noticed. I’m hoping today’s news will help make my point.
Let’s look at some recent history.
September 2012 · The debut of Google Play services brought OAuth 2.0 capabilities to apps running on all compatible devices back to release 2.2 (Froyo).
December 2012 · Google Play services release 2 brought major Maps-API improvements to apps on all compatible devices back to 2.2.
February 26, 2013 · Release 3 of Google Play services brought a major revamp of the Google+ API to apps on all compatible devices back to 2.2.
How It Works · Google Play services is an APK, an Android app that can be released several times a year (look at that history) and be pushed to all those compatible devices via Play. To an immensely huge number of handsets and tablets in a remarkably short period of time.
Inside that APK are all the new goodies: So far, OAuth, Maps, and Google+. To use them, Android developers fetch a little library from the SDK Manager and make calls through it to the code in the Play services APK.
And their code will run on all compatible devices back to 2.2.
That Rhythm · New software goodies for Android no longer have to be packaged in blasts named after desserts that take years to build market share. They’ve been coming out in regular releases of Google Play services, (pardon me, I’m going to say it again) available on all compatible devices back to 2.2.
And this happens without needing any support effort from telephone companies or device makers.
Dear Mobile-Industry Experts · Yeah, if what you care about is new smoother glass and slicker chips and faster broadband, you’re still on the dessert schedule. But if what matters is what apps can do, you can pretty well ignore that Versions dashboard.
Comment feed for ongoing:
From: Christopher (Feb 26 2013, at 13:29)
None of the Android apps I've written have used any of these Google-specific APIs, so I'll keep on watching the device dashboards :)
From: Julian Reschke (Feb 26 2013, at 14:46)
Now if my (Motorola) phone was on 2.2 (or never), I'd be even more excited...
From: Sathya (Feb 26 2013, at 15:03)
I agree that it is irritating to see the same fragmentation conversations taking place in the media but in my view, Google PR hasn't done much to negate the view either..... I think it's time Google start talking about awesome stuff that you are cooking, aloud!
From: Joseph Scott (Feb 26 2013, at 15:08)
So is the Google approach to down play Android in favor of Google Play instead? If this is the new Google branding rhythm, it feels a bit odd.
It seems like the reverse is true instead, Google has realized that in order for their new Play related APIs to get wide exposure they need to support all the way back to Android 2.2 Other wise they'll only be available to well under half the Android devices.
Side note, the anti-spam questions are odd. I had to search for an answer. Akismet is a good option for comment spam, though I'm biased, since I worked on the Akismet team for a few years :-)
From: Andy Reitz (Feb 26 2013, at 15:49)
Regarding the issue (or non-issue) of OS fragmentation in Android, what about security patches, and critical frameworks that only exist in newer releases? It seems these things matter somewhat. For example, one of Google's marquee apps for Android, Chrome, requires Android 4.0 or later:
Which is on less than 50% of Android devices according to Google's public numbers.
From: Stephen O'Grady (Feb 26 2013, at 18:42)
Is Google Now supported back to 2.2? If not, this would be my concern:
From: Brion Vibber (Feb 26 2013, at 18:50)
Unfortunately the WebView is not similarly back ported. :(
From: Kevin Marks (Feb 27 2013, at 02:49)
If you could roll chrome into that, we'd all be very happy
From: James Holderness (Feb 27 2013, at 04:17)
+1 to Brion's WebView comment.
Maybe fragmentation means different things to different developers, but speaking for myself, I couldn't give a damn about the latest Google Play services. What matters most to me is getting the latest bug fixes to the core APIs and webkit.
On iOS, I could decide today that I was going to limit my apps to iOS 6.0 and above and still reach 95% of the user base. As far as I can tell, there aren't any versions of Android with an equally modern version of webkit. And more than 50% of the Android user base is still using a version of webkit roughly equivalent to iOS4.
So, yeah, that Android version dashboard still matters a great deal.
From: Colin Stewart (Mar 03 2013, at 04:44)
I have to maintain different code for using the camera across most early versions of Android with their differing APIs. I have to restrict what my app can do because some handsets crash when you use the camera API as documented.
I have to use third party software to provide a fallback for the ActionBar on the 50% of devices that don't support it. This also means a few different layout files to be maintained. I have to use a support library that's not identical to the native APIs so that I can use fragments.
Android fragmentation is alive and well. Pushing a handful of Google specific APIs to old handsets doesn't solve any of my problems.
By attempting to take focus off the very real problem of fragmentation by shipping play services it in some ways makes things worse, as it reduces the pressure on operators and manufacturers to keep their devices current.