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Connectivity

Google’s Android Is Mega Popular, but It’s Got a Big Problem

Google’s Android OS is severely fragmented, and it’s trying a bunch of things to fix it.

Since it was first rolled out on a side-sliding QWERTY keyboard-wielding smartphone back in 2008, Google’s Android operating system has grown into the most widely used mobile OS. Today, it runs on well over a billion phones made by a variety of companies that run on wireless networks all over the world.

Partly because of this success, Android has also run into a big problem that its rival Apple, which makes all of its own phones and hardware, doesn’t. Over the years, Google has released many updated versions of the software, and Android smartphones today rely on a range of different versions of the OS. This “fragmentation” can have serious implications for security, as well as the ability of various phones to do things like use the latest Android features and apps.

Fragmentation on Android is pretty severe: this chart that Google recently released shows that just 7.5 percent of Android smartphones use Marshmallow (the newest complete version of the OS, as the more recently announced Android N won’t be released until this summer). The chart also shows 35.6 percent of Android smartphones are using Lollipop, which came out in late 2014, and 32.5 percent are still stuck on the even older KitKat version of Android.

Apple, by comparison, indicates that 84 percent of its iOS users are on its most recent version, iOS 9, 11 percent are on iOS 8, and 5 percent are using older software.

The latest version of Android, called Marshmallow, supports phones with a fingerprint sensor.

So what’s the solution for Android? As this Bloomberg piece points out, Google is trying to get phone makers and wireless carriers to update handsets more frequently to the newest version of Android by doing things like convincing them to be faster at adding security updates and simply releasing its own apps (like the forthcoming messaging app Allo, which it announced at its developer conference in May), as ways to spread new features.

It may also be doing some serious arm twisting: Bloomberg adds that Google has even ranked the biggest phone makers according to “how up-to-date their handsets are, based on security patches and operating system versions.” Google let its Android partners see the ranked list this year and has considered releasing it publicly—a move that would be made, ostensibly, to embarrass some phone makers into falling in line with updates.

That could work in some cases. Yet even if smartphone manufacturers and wireless carriers want to update Android phones more swiftly, it’s important to keep in mind that plenty of lower-end Android phones simply can’t support the latest software and features. Don’t expect Google’s upcoming virtual-reality platform, Daydream, to run on a $50 Android handset, for example.

Bloomberg points out how one recent Android development called Instant Apps might help somewhat, at least as far as helping those with older or less powerful smartphones gain access to new things that software developers are making.

The project, which was also shown off at Google’s developer conference this month, lets users whose phones have older versions of Android run Android apps via a URL without needing to install the apps on their handsets—developers can enable this by updating their existing apps. Instant Apps will be accessible on the vast majority of Android handsets, working on phones going all the way back to the Jelly Bean version of the OS, and Google says it’s coming later this year.

(Read more: Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal)

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The latest version of Android, called Marshmallow, supports phones with a fingerprint sensor.
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