Has Google done enough to keep Android phones up-to-date?

The company will provide device makers a developer kit to help them adopt new Android releases more quickly

Google announced a new version of Android this week with some impressive new features, but it's unclear if it's done enough to solve a problem that has dogged its mobile OS: fragmentation.

Even as it announced the imminent launch of Android 4.1, or Jelly Bean, the majority of users are still running Gingerbread, which is three major releases behind. According to Google's own figures, just 7 percent are running the current version, Ice Cream Sandwich, which launched last October.

That means apps that tap into the latest innovations in the OS aren't available to most Android users. It also means developers, the lifeblood of the platform, are forced to test their apps across multiple devices and multiple versions of the OS.

So when Google's Hugo Barra announced a "platform developer kit" during the opening keynote at I/O this week, the news was greeted with applause. The PDK will provide Android phone makers with a preview version of upcoming Android releases, making it easier for them to get the latest software in their new phones.

Currently, Google completes work on an OS update and then shares it with chip and phone makers, who make sure it works with their hardware and tune it for their needs. Carriers then sell the devices to consumers.

The PDK will provide chip and phone makers with a release of the Android update earlier in the process, before it's finalized. That will allow them to start their development work sooner and get the software into consumers' hands more quickly when it's finished, according to Google.

But is the PDK enough to secure for developers the single user experience for big numbers of Android users that developers crave?

In a "fireside chat" with the Android team, the packed house of developers had more questions about OS fragmentation than Google had answers.

Asked how the company intended to get Jelly Bean to users faster than it has Ice Cream Sandwich, a staffer said, "We're going to first give you free devices; that's one good way to start." Google is giving free tablets and phones to developers at the event.

One developer asked about the Android Alliance announced at I/O in 2011 that would ensure that smartphones got regular updates for at least 18 months. The Alliance was a commitment from OEMs to ensure that users of their phones got relevant updates quickly, Google said.

The response was somewhat flippant. "What we said last year is that we would make sure devices got supported for 18 months, but it hasn't been 18 months since last year so we can't prove or disprove if it's working or not," said Dave Burke, Android engineering director.

It is perhaps this sort of comment that leads analyst Brian Blau, with Gartner, to conclude that Google "must not care" about the fragmentation issue.

To be fair, Google faces a difficult problem. Both OEMs and mobile carriers customize the open-source OS, so that there are differences even for users running the same version of Android on different devices or with different providers. And neither OEMs nor carriers are in the business of providing OS updates, and have incentives for encouraging users to buy new phones instead.

The PDK won't change any of those factors. Its goal is simply to get phones running a particular version of the OS into consumers' hands faster, Google representatives told developers.

Google does have at least one way to fix the problem, according to analyst Ezra Gottheil, with Technology Business Research. The company could make a version of Android that is more uniform across devices and carriers, he said. Users could then update the OS directly from Google, much as iOS users do from Apple. But the OEMs and carriers want to be able to customize the OS to make it look like their product, according to Gottheil.

Google must therefore navigate between angering its hardware partners and its developers.

"They're trying to knock the edges of the problem," Gottheil said.

But fragmentation contributes to the higher cost of making apps for Android, according to mobile analytics firm Flurry, meaning Google risks chasing its developers away if it does too little to address the problem.

"The danger there would be they get a reputation of having no decent apps, but I think they're kind of far away from that," Gottheil said.

Indeed, developers at the conference seemed to accept that fragmentation can be an occupational hazard of open-source development. They also noted that Google offers tools in its support libraries to help them work with the multiple versions of Android.

"Android is really the first time that we have an operating system that can run on this widely different array of devices, and more or less you can write the same code that's really easily portable, which has been the dream. I really think that the pros of that far outweigh a more integrated system where you only have a few different pieces of hardware," said Zack Juhasz, of a yet-to-launch startup, Tenkiv.

Cameron Scott covers search, web services and privacy for The IDG News Service. Follow Cameron on Twitter at CScott_IDG.

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