Find: an Android version primer

Short but sweet. Ben.

via Lifehacker by Kevin Purdy on 2/15/11

Please Help Me Understand the Android ReleasesDear Lifehacker,
So, Google's CEO said something about a new version, but it's coming after Android 3.0 ("Honeycomb"), and it ties in with Android 2.3 ("Gingerbread'), which really hasn't moved out yet, and might also update. So, uh, what's going on with Android, exactly? Help me make sense of all these desserts!

Astonished by Android

Dear Astonished,

Here's our best shot at deciphering the official statements made by Eric Schmidt at today's Mobile World Congress, statements made here and there by Android workers, and less-than-official bits and pieces that help color in some of this rather crowded, abstract picture.

The Majority of Android Phones, Right Now, Are Running Android 2.2, "Froyo"

Please Help Me Understand the Android ReleasesA bit over half of all Android devices are running Android 2.2, also known as "Froyo." That's based on Google's reporting, itself based on devices that have accessed the Market (even if only for app update checks in the background) within the last two weeks. The second largest share is Android 2.1, "Eclair," with just over 30 percent. Android 2.1 is technically an update to Android 2.0, which also falls under the "Eclair" name, but that's a separate bit of confusion that's in the past now.

Android 2.3 "Gingerbread" Is Technically Released, But Barely Available

Please Help Me Understand the Android ReleasesLess than one percent of devices are running Android 2.3, because it's only available on the Nexus S (available only on T-Mobile in the U.S.), or to Android users who have installed unofficial, third-party firmware on their device (a.k.a. "rooting").

Generally, Google releases each Android version as a very short-term exclusive on a particular phone, from a certain carrier, before the source code for the version is available to phone makers, carriers, and app developers. In this case, it's the Nexus S on T-Mobile, which is a "reference hardware" for developers' use, but publicly available at Best Buy. The source code for 2.3 has been released at this point, and unofficial versions have made their way to firmware hackers.

So why isn't Gingerbread available anywhere except on one niche phone? The most accurate answer is "A number of decisions by a lot of parties with varied interests." But I'd guess that the most important factor is that Android 2.3 just isn't that big an update. Don't get us wrong—keyboard, app management, and little graphic touches are nice. But if you have to pay a team of programmers to update your devices, spend thousands of man-hours testing it, and hedge your bets against waiting for a newer, bigger update that might be coming soon, you, as a carrier or manufacturer, might not be so eager on a lot of nice little touches.

Android 3.0, "Honeycomb," Is Only for Tablets

Please Help Me Understand the Android ReleasesThe Android version that Google has demonstrated on tablets is only made for tablets. This has been confirmed by Google, but made vague through reports of hybrid Honeycombs that might one day run on phones. And that makes sense—many of Honeycomb's tablet-oriented features are something the iPad could learn from. But Honeycomb, at least as you've seen it demonstrated, will not be arriving on any phones.

The Next, Next Actual Android Release Will Somehow Merge Honeycomb Features Into Phones

So tablets may get Android 3.0 before any other phones get Android 2.3. Weird, but just how it happens. And Android 2.4 may be coming, too—perhaps in April. But Android 2.4 is seemingly just another small update to the way Android looks today, and maybe just a kind of compatibility fix.

At Mobile World Congress earlier today, outgoing Google CEO Eric Schmidt was asked about Android's confusing version names and numbers. His answer didn't exactly make a clean slice through all the dense verbiage, but he did give something away. As quoted by Engadget

"Today I'll use the commonly used names. We have OS called gingerbread for phones, we have an OS being previewed now for tablets called Honeycomb. The two of them... you can imagine the follow up will start with an I, be named after dessert, and will combine these two."

Schmidt went on to say that Android would be adapting a six-month release cycle. And to parse what he half-explained: The next major, name-worthy Android release to be announced, which might be 4.0, will land on both smartphones and tablets, and will likely provide a common set of features for users and developers to plan on. It could be name "Ice Cream," or, as sometimes hinted at, "Ice Cream Sandwich," to possibly avoid (even more) confusion with "Froyo."

When will 4.0 arrive? Maybe six months after Honeycomb—which hasn't officially launched yet, on any device, with no official word on a launch date.

In short, Astonished, there will be a bit of reworking of Gingerbread for phones, an eventual Honeycomb for tablets, and, later on, some kind of dessert starting with "I" for everything Android. How should you anticipate these changes? Don't watch Google. Instead, consider the specs that actually matter, and whether your phone maker delivers on upgrades. We hope this read-through has been of help, though, at least in understanding the regular torrent of Android information landing on the web.


P.S.—Got any other Android version questions? We'll gladly take them in the comments.