Google released Android 6.0 Marshmallow approximately six months ago but this very latest version of Android has so far only reached around 5% of handset penetration, according to Google's statistics. In other words, only one in twenty Android devices out there is running the latest version of Android. Approximately one third of devices are running Android Lollipop, either version 5.0 or 5.1, and another third are running on version 4.4 Kit Kat. The remaining devices are mostly running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, 2.3 Gingerbread or even 2.2 FroYo.
For those customers using a reasonably modern flagship device – something from the last two years – most of these are in the queue to receive the upgrade from 5.x Lollipop to 6.0 Marshmallow. As it happens, the differences between 5.1 and 6.0 are relatively minor in day by day use. Yes; Android 6.0 features very much enhanced standby power management, and there are important changes to how the operating system handles application permissions, but the user interface is very similar. This is very much as expected: as a platform, Android is maturing and there is less for the engineers to fix. Nevertheless, customers are still eagerly waiting for their device to be upgraded to the latest version. Given how similar the last three versions of the operating system look and feel, the upgrade is often something of a let down. Google, however, promote the latest version of the Android platform has having many advantages over the older versions and is therefore highly desirable. Could this promotion be harming the Android platform?
Let's take a simplified overview of the current Android device update process. There are many stages, starting with Google's engineers releasing a new version of the platform. Next, component manufacturers must decide what hardware the new platform will support, then write the necessary device drivers. Once these have been written, the manufacturers establish what devices could technically receive the update and what devices will. The new version of the operating system is then written and tested (via Google) before being turned over to a carrier, if applicable. The carrier must also test and approve the new software and once the platform has been through these hoops, it is released to the end user. Most Google Nexus devices skip a few stages and software updates arrive considerably quicker on this platform. Currently, Google showcase the new features of a given operating system some months before it is released – Android Marshmallow was first talked about around a year ago. These long delays mean that customers could be waiting a year for a software update to finally arrive on their devices. Of course, one answer to this issue is for customers to buy a Nexus device, but the Nexus smartphones may be high end but typically do not have as many features as other manufacturers' flagship devices.
To answer the question: yes, these long delays could be harmful for the platform, especially where some devices and carriers take a controversial decision not to release a software update, or where customers are kept waiting for eighteen months for a now-obsolete upgrade to their device. Google is working on improving the update situation: it has released more and more applications in the Google Play Store so that customers do not need to wait for a software update, a process that started with the release of Google Play Services many years ago. In effect, Google's marketing department has a field day with the dessert-themed names for Android versions and we, as the media, promote the new features of a given operating system upgrade.
However, the smartphone market is changing. In 2015 and thanks in part to the Stagefright exploit, Google is working on releasing monthly patches to the Android operating system. These are not exciting upgrades. Some manufacturers have tried to apply the same security fixes to their devices, although the above upgrade process is still getting in the way. There is another change happening: the smartphone is becoming a commodity item and in some parts of the world, carriers are changing how they sell devices. Traditional cell phone two year plans in North America cost the same almost regardless of the device, which meant many customers opted for a flagship device. This meant that manufacturers were keener to support their flagship models with software upgrades for two years after launch. Owners of mid and lower end devices did not see as many software updates during the life of the contract, despite pressure from Google for manufacturers to support devices for this time. However, 2016's equipment installation plans, whereby the customer pays off the cash purchase value of the device over the two years, means that there's an obvious cost saving to be made should a customer opt for a cheaper device. This means that more mid-range devices are being sold compared with previous years and this in turn, should encourage the device manufacturers to keep less-than-flagship devices updated.
It is hard to imagine Google giving up on the dessert naming convention behind Android versions. It would also feel strange should the Google I/O conference be less covered and less exciting. Android's device manufacturers are scrabbling to compete with one another as well as the Apple competition, so are going to use those catchy dessert names to promote their latest device: saying it ships with Android Marshmallow sounds better than explaining it ships with the latest version of Android. We are sure there are many more features to be included into Android over the coming years, but these may be less and less exciting as time goes on. Perhaps in the coming conferences, Google will announce a massive change to the way that Android is updated. If Google were to adopt an update process similar to Microsoft takes with its desktop and server operating system and applications, this would likely change Android forever.