Google recently released the first developer builds for the next major version of Android, Android O. And already sites (including our own) are abuzz with talk of new features, highlights and of course how to install it on your phone. And this is understandable. After all, Android is by some distance the most popular smartphone OS in the world, with a vibrant app ecosystem and is also perhaps the only mobile OS that is used by people at every point of the price spectrum. A new version of the OS complete with new features, enabling millions of users to do more with their phones is big news indeed.
So, why then am I getting a feeling of deja vu?
Well, mainly because over the past few years, new Android version announcements have followed a regular pattern – the new version is “leaked,” developer builds are released, the OS itself is officially released… and THEN, the vast majority of Android users have no option but to use what the Count of Monte Cristo called the two greatest words of all – wait and hope. Yes, wait and hope that the new OS will at some stage trickle down to their devices.
If that sounds unkind, then consider the simple facts. According to the Android Developers page which tracks the versions of Android being used, there are as many as seven major Android versions being used, and the one that is being used the most is – surprise, surprise – Android Lollipop (5.0 and 5.1), which accounts for a very substantial 32.5 percent. The comes Android Marshmallow (6.0), which released in 2015 and has a 31.3 percent share. The latest Android, Nougat (7.0 and 7.1) was released last year and so far is available on about 2.8 percent Android devices. That is bad enough, but what is really shocking is that the almost ancient enough to be venerable Android KitKat is still being used by over a fifth of all Android users (20.8 percent).
And this is nothing really new. The most popular version of Android in the market has generally been the one that was released a couple of years ago – KitKat ruled when Marshmallow was released, and Jellybean had to deal with the popularity of Ice Cream Sandwich. It is a very a strange state of affairs.
Yes, we know that the hardcore Android crowd will point out that the onus of updating Android to newer versions lies with the manufacturers, who often prefer to invest in releasing new devices with the latest version of Android rather than updating older ones. True enough, but the stark fact remains that at the end of the day, the news of the release of a new version of Android is rapidly becoming similar to the announcement of a policy for the economically underprivileged – good on paper but terribly slow to reach the ones for whom it is intended. Even a former flagship like the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 is only now getting the Nougat update – we are not holding our breaths to find out if it will ever get to O.
The fact that the past few years have seen a massive influx of Chinese players in the Indian market has also rendered the version of Android relatively less important. Most Chinese manufacturers come with elaborate UIs – Xiaomi has its MIUI, Huawei the EMUI, OnePlus has Oxygen and so on and so forth. Some might point out that this is nothing new. After all, notwithstanding the alleged popularity of stock (or pure) Android, manufacturers have always had their layers or skins over Android – Samsung had TouchWiz, HTC had Sense and so on. Well, the difference between them and someone like Xiaomi and the newer Chinese players is that the latter update their skins frequently, adding new features and fixing bugs. By doing so, they gently shift the focus of the consumer towards waiting for an update of the UI rather than the OS.
Top that off with the fact that even non-Nexus and Pixel devices running stock Android now take a long time to get updated to newer versions (the pace of updates for older Moto devices has evidently been sluggish), and you will understand the reason why news of a new Android does not exactly thrill my nerves. Yes, it is great to hear that Google has added features to the most popular mobile OS in the world, but just how many Android users will actually be able to avail of these? Let’s face it, not everyone owns a Nexus or a Pixel device, and it will be a while before the new Android is the OS of choice for new phones being released in the market. And it is not as if Google is not aware of the problem – there are periodic announcements about how the company is looking to ensure that Android updates are rolled out more frequently and more smoothly. But like electoral promises, these are nice to hear but seem to exist more on paper than on the ground. The fact that the likes of Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft are able to update their devices to the latest OS reasonably rapidly and in large numbers only further dampens my enthusiasm for new Android versions.
So pardon me if my reaction to the news of a new version of Android, in the words of the immortal Rhett Butler from Gone With the Wind is:
“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”