Android updates don’t matter anywhere near as much as they used to. Most Android devices don’t get timely operating system updates, but Google is updating more and more of the Android operating system in the background.
This is Google’s real plan for battling Android fragmentation: Update as much of the operating system and its apps as possible without going through device manufacturers or carriers. Older devices aren’t as outdated as they used to be.
Android updates were once extremely important. For example, when Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich came out, it brought an entirely redesigned interface, performance improvements, and even APIs limited to Android 4.0. Certain apps wouldn’t run on devices without Android 4.0. Google Chrome required Android 4.0, so devices that were never upgraded from Android 2.3 Gingerbread still can’t use Google Chrome today. The leap to Android 4.0 was huge. Android 4.1 was also extremely important, making the interface much more smooth and less laggy with “Project Butter.”
Compared to Android 4.0 and Android 4.1, the most recent versions of Android are minor updates. Android 4.4 is the biggest update, bringing significantly reduced memory usage — but, if you have a device that came with a recent version of Android, it probably already runs well and these memory reductions are only nice to have.
Google is updating Android without actually updating the Android operating system. When a manufacturer wants to release an Android device, they have to negotiate an agreement with Google to get the Google Play Store and Google apps on their devices. As part of this agreement, Google reserves the right to update the Google Play Services component of Android on their own. This component automatically updates in the background on your Android device, and there’s no way for you — or the device’s manufacturer — to stop this from occurring.
Google has been adding quite a few features to Android through Google Play Services. These updates affect devices all the way back to Android 2.3 Gingerbread and 2.2 Froyo, released in 2010.
For example, Google has added the Android Device Manager device-tracking feature to nearly all Android devices thanks to a Google Play Services update. Just open the Google Settings app — this entire app was added via a Play Services update — tap Android Device Manager, and enable it. Google has also added an app-scanning feature that scans sideloaded apps for malware if you choose to enable it, making older devices more secure. These user-facing features were added to the Android operating system via a Play Services update without any interference from device manufacturers or carriers.
Google has also added new APIs for developers to use, including a more efficient location API that dramatically reduces battery usage. The old method required each separate app to wake up the GPS hardware and determine your location on its own.
These are the kind of updates that would require a complete operating system update on other platforms. However, Google has managed to perform an end-run around the carriers and manufacturers slowing things down and release updates for nearly all Android devices. If your device has the Play Store, Google is updating it.
Google has also split more and more apps out of Android, releasing them as apps in the Play Store. This means that the app can be updated without updating the Android operating system, but it also means that you can install the app on old versions of Android.
Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Keyboard, Hangouts, Chrome, Google Maps, Drive, YouTube, Keep, Google+, the Google search app — these are all apps that update regularly from Google Play and can be installed on older devices. On Apple’s iOS, an update to a system app like Mail, Calendar, Messages, or Safari would require a completely new version of the iOS operating system. On Android, they’re automatically updating for everyone.
Android 4.4’s Google Experience Launcher has even been rolled out to other devices via an update to the Google Search app. You can easily enable it by sideloading a small enabler app. The Google Experience Launcher may eventually be available for easy, official installation on older devices.
Certain things still require operating system updates. Operating system-level features like multiple user accounts, memory usage reductions, or support for new hardware standards like Bluetooth 4.0 can’t be rolled out in the background. They require new versions of the core operating system.
However, these updates are becoming less and less significant. Google is rolling out as many new features as possible via Play Services updates and app updates. They’re splitting out more and more apps from the Android operating system, making them available in Google Play so every device can update to them.
The reality is Android updates have become less and less significant. If you have a device with Android 4.1 or 4.2, you still have a very modern Android experience with most of the latest features. You can still use all the latest apps because Google has given you the latest APIs. Nevermind the version numbers — Android fragmentation is improving.
This is Google’s plan to battle Android fragmentation, both for developers and users. Developers get access to the same APIs across all Android devices, while users get access to features and new apps quicker. So far, it seems to be working.
Image Credit: Kham Tran on Flickr