The Android version problem

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

I'm writing this post from Chrome 19.

Yes, nineteen. Zero is another significant number: the number of times I've downloaded the new version of Chrome.

Jeff Atwood wrote about this phenomenon, and the eventual paradise of the infinite version a year ago, stating that the infinite version is a "not if — but when" eventuality.

Chrome is at one (awesome) end of the software upgrade continuum. I've rarely noticed an update to Chrome, and I've rarely checked the version. A couple of months ago I did, when a Facebook game I was working on suddenly started crashing consistently. The problem was tracked to a specific version in Chrome, and within hours, I heard that an update was released. I checked my version again, and Chrome had already been updated with the fix.

This nearly version-free agility has allowed Chrome to innovate a pace not matched by IE, Firefox, or even Safari. I swear the preferences pane has changed every time I open it (not necessarily a good thing).

At the other end you have the enterprise dinosaurs; the inventory, procurement, accounting systems that are just impossible to get rid of — I'm thinking of one local furniture retailer which still uses point-of-sale and inventory systems with black/green DOS-looking screens on the sales floor.

Most other software industries fall somewhere in between, trying to innovate, update, or even just survive while still paying the backward-compatibility price for technical decisions made in years past.

Check out this gem alive and well (erm, alive, at least) in Windows Vista:

Add Fonts in Windows Vista

Look familiar? That file/directory widget has seen better days; it made its debut in 1992 with Windows 3.1:

Open File in Windows 3.1

Supporting legacy versions is not just a technical problem, though. For some companies and products it's just in their nature to be backward compatible. And sometimes to great success; take Windows in the PC growth generation, or standards like USB, for example. For some opinionated few, backward incompatibility is downright opposed to success.

And then there's Apple.

Apple may not be a shining example of smooth upgrades, but they aren't shy about doing it.

Anyone who knows Apple knows they are just about the least sentimental bastards in the world. They'll throw away all their work on a platform that many were still excited about or discontinue an enormously popular product that was only 18 months old. They have switched underlying operating system kernels, chip architectures, their core operating system API, and notoriously and unceremoniously broken third-party applications on a wide scale with every new OS (both Mac and iOS).

OK, so they aren't entirely unsentimental — Steve Jobs did hold a funeral for Mac OS 9, about a year after OS X replaced it on desktops.

All of this allows Apple to put progress and innovation above all else.

Steve Jobs, in his famous "Thoughts on Flash", made clear his view that Apple doesn't let attachment to anything stand in the way of platform progress:

We know from painful experience that letting a third party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform. If developers grow dependent on third party development libraries and tools, they can only take advantage of platform enhancements if and when the third party chooses to adopt the new features. We cannot be at the mercy of a third party deciding if and when they will make our enhancements available to our developers.

Jobs also made it clear that this applies to Apple itself. "If you don't cannibalize yourself, someone else will," said Jobs in a quote pulled from the Walter Isaacon biography.

This attitude has paid off for iOS. Analysis of app downloads shows that uptake for new major versions is rapid. iOS 4.0 just barely got going before it was traded in for iOS 5.0.

The story is not the same for Android. MG Seigler reveals (via DF) that Android 4.0.x "Ice Cream Sandwich" has only seen 7.1% uptake in 7 months. As Seigler notes, Google is expected to announce the next version this month, which would likely occur before ICS even sees 10% adoption.

Two Googles

Two Googles

So at one end of the upgrade-nirvana spectrum, we have: Google. And at the other end: Google.

How could they be so different?

A lot of people want to draw tight comparisons between the mobile OS wars going on now and the desktop OS wars that Apple lost in the 80s and 90s.

If we do that, for a minute, we might actually see some similarities. Apple currently supports six iOS devices, with a total history of twelve. By some accounts, there may be as many as 3997 distinct Android devices.

Android is also "winning" in market share, with 51 percent of the US smartphone market vs. iOS's almost 31 percent, according to March 2012 Comscore data. Gartner numbers put Android ahead even further, with 56 and 23 percent, respectively (and this has been the story for some time).

Or is it?

Isn't all smartphone market share equal? What's interesting about these numbers is just how different they are from web usage numbers. Shockingly different.

This report by Forbes puts iOS web market share 62% with Android at 20%.

Similar data comes in when analyzing enterprise usage, as well.


"Smartphone" market share numbers suggest Android is winning, yet certain usage statistics still put Apple in a comfortable lead. Meanwhile, Apple seems quite comfortable blowing away growth estimates again and again while nearly every other device maker is struggling to turn a profit. What does Apple know that the industry doesn't?

Has anyone else noticed a lack of "dumbphones" (non-smartphones) around them lately? Android phones have largely replaced these non-smartphones or feature phones in the "free" section of major cell phone providers' online stores and store shelves alike. This means customers who walk into a store looking for a new phone or a replacement but not knowing (or really caring) what they are shopping for are often ending up with an Android phone — just like they ended up with feature phones in years past.

That's great for market share. But how is it great for business? Generally speaking, these people don't buy apps. They don't promote or evangelize. They aren't repeat customers. Their primary business value is to the service provider; not to the device maker, not to Google.

And they are extremely unlikely to update their operating system.

The good news to Google is that these users who don't upgrade don't represent a large cost to abandon, should they decide to make innovative, backward-compatibility-breaking changes in future versions.

The bad news is that third party developers will be afraid to support new (and possibly risky) versions, or break compatibility with old versions in order to adopt new features. All reasonable version distribution statistics, such as the new Ice Cream Sandwich numbers, show basically no adoption at all. So why take the risk?

I get the feeling that Apple will be happy to continue to innovate and bring new and better features to its customers; and Android will continue to match feature-for-feature on paper, but not where it counts: in the App Store.