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.
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