By Chuck Gray
Last updated 11/11/2013. In preparation for my soon-to-be-released 2013 device guide, I thought it might be a good time to explain the different versions of Android, the mobile operating system that powers the majority of the devices that I will be writing about. I've written a lot about Android in the last two years, but I've almost always assumed a certain level of knowledge on the reader's part - knowledge that you may in fact lack. The truth is that Android's version history is a complicated mess, and it will help you, the consumer, to know a lot more about it. So here we go: an intro to the Android landscape.
Android is a free and open source operating system project, developed and maintained by Google. Why is it free and open source? Android actually slightly pre-dates iPhone, but with Blackberry already the dominant smartphone provider in 2007 and iPhone's revolutionary hardware quickly catching up, Google had to take drastic action to get their foot in the door. Google’s strategy was to give Android away so that it would become the dominant mobile operating system. It worked. As time went by, Google figured out more ways to monetize their “free” operating system, primarily through sales made via the Android Market, which later became "Google Play" when Google expanded their offerings to include music, movies, tv shows, books, and magazines. Android has become the mobile operating system of choice for manufacturers looking for low-cost and highly customizable software to run their hardware. These days, now that Android has "won" the smartphone "war," at least in terms of its worldwide install base, Google exercises some stronger control on just how Android is used if OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) want to keep enjoying the benefits of Google Play and other core Google apps, like Gmail, Drive, Hangouts, etc. As a result, Android is perhaps less "open source" than it used to be, though its source code still remains open to use and manipulate by anyone.
While this has allowed Android to dominate the mobile market, it has come at the price of a fractured software landscape that can leave even the most tech-savvy among us confused. Google has released several versions of Android, each one a good improvement over the last. OEMs take those versions and add their own spin on them. Some of them, like Amazon, throw almost everything “Google” out and start nearly from scratch. So when a device is said to run Android, the implied usability is more complex than an iPhone or Windows phone, both of which are proprietary operating systems that don't vary from device to device.
Let's start with the basics. Google has released four major versions of Android, with several incremental updates that have each actually added a great deal of new functionality and polish. Each new official release of Android is named after a sweet or dessert, going in alphabetical order. I'm going to provide extremely general overviews of each major release. If you want a more detailed history, click here for the Wikipedia entry on Android's many releases.
Android 1.x was released in 2008 and rough though it was, it was already a much more feature-rich operating system than iPhone or Windows mobile, particularly thanks to its deep integration with the already diverse set of Google services. But it was definitely in its infancy, buggy, clunky, and it may have bit off more than it could chew so early on.
Android 2.x, particularly 2.3 "Gingerbread," was the version that finally brought together those useful features and a polished enough user experience that Android became more of a contender in the mobile market. Up to that point, iPhone may have had fewer features, but was far more user-friendly and stable. Android 2.3 started to turn that situation around, but was still very clunky and slow, particularly when compared to iPhone.
Then came a serious challenge for Android: the iPad. While the iPad was (and is) little more than a large iPhone, Apple made one key strategic decision for iPad apps that Google did not for its tablets: apps for the iPad were required to be designed specifically around the larger screen and resolution. This has allowed the iPad to both define and dominate the tablet market, even three years later. Early on, Google took what was essentially the opposite tack, one that was designed to get Android on as many different devices as possible, never mind interface problems: Android apps had to be designed to run at any resolution and screen size. The appeal in this decision is easy to see, in that it allowed a wider range of devices to all the run the same apps. But as Android tablets hit the market, app developers did little to create apps designed around larger screens. They contented themselves with apps designed for three-inch screens that looked ridiculous when stretched-out on seven and ten-inch screens. This was a flaw that Apple was quick to point out with the release of the iPad 2 in 2011, and while some progress has been made by Android app developers, this state of affairs remains largely unaltered, even today.
Many OEMs, most notably Samsung, took Android 2.x and stuck it on tablets, where it really had no place being. Google attempted to address this with the release of Android 3 "Honeycomb," but it was a release that never really caught on. Honeycomb brought a new interface optimized for tablets that was also much more polished and feature rich than Android 2.3, but there was a problem: Android phones were stuck with an older interface and lots of apps, while tablets had a nice new bespoke interface, but still no tablet-optimized apps. These circumstances led to the quick demise of Honeycomb and are the reason you'll find no devices that still run it outside of pawn shops and eBay.
Google took the interface improvements from Honeycomb and baked them into Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich," an OS that successfully bridged the gap between phones and tablets. With the release of Android 4.1-4.3, all codenamed "Jellybean," Google has added increasing levels of usefulness, visual polish, and most importantly, lots of speed. Google has also been pushing hard for app developers to create tablet-optimized apps. Many tech industry critics and watchers have said that the Jellybean releases of Android have finally brought together the sort of polished interface iOS is known for with the powerful feature set Android already possessed, and that Jellybean is finally a good reason to consider Android over iOS. The next version of Android, 4.4 “KitKat,” is just now being released on the Google Nexus 5 smartphone; click here to learn more about KitKat.
As stated, Google makes this software available for free for OEMs to do with as they please. The problem with that is that each manufacturer needs to add its own special functionality on top of the "stock" Android software to distinguish their hardware from other devices. An Android phone from Samsung is going to look and behave a good bit differently from devices offered by LG or Motorola or HTC, to name just a few of the many OEMs.
The most obvious way that devices vary is through the "launcher." A launcher is the visual interface users interact with. Launchers can vary in home screen design, icon arrangement, wallpaper selection, widget offerings and placement, app drawer arrangement (where all the apps are installed, not just those on your home screen), and status bar functionality. Each manufacturer gives its launcher names: Samsung has "Touchwiz," HTC has "Sense UI," LG has "Optimus UI," etc. You can choose to stick with these or you can install one of your own choosing from Google Play. In fact, that's something I've already written about.
Other device differentiators include specialized camera apps, included productivity software, different levels of social networking integration, heavily curated app stores, tons of bloatware apps you'd like to rid yourself of, but can't, ringtones, security features, media players, backup options, motion, voice, and even eye controls and on and on. I think what really matters at the end of the day is that all of these devices can run the same pool of apps available through Google Play - everything else is just so much icing when you can download apps, widgets, and launchers to make your device do whatever you want and appear however you’d like.
Though manufacturers are busy putting their own spin on Android, it's not like the stock releases of the software lack polished user interfaces. Quite the contrary - stock Android has a beautiful and simplified interface that many users, including myself, prefer over the clutter from OEMs. Google partners with various hardware makers to produce its "Nexus" line of devices which feature Android as intended by Google. Samsung, LG, HTC, and Asus have all developed Nexus phones and tablets that work the way Google wants. Nexus devices also receive the newest versions of Android first when they are released by Google.
Non-Nexus devices must wait for their manufacturers to roll out their own customized updates based upon the new official Android releases. Unfortunately, owners of devices older than a year or two may find themselves left out in the cold, a common and justifiable gripe of many Android users. In fact, while I do like Android very much, this lack of centralized OS updates of the sort Apple provides is one of the biggest reasons to stay away from non-Nexus devices, since new versions of Android also include vital security updates.
The unifying feature through all of these devices is their integration with the Google ecosystem of services and apps. But as I've discovered during my experiments with customized Android ROMs, the Android operating system and the Google services are actually separate from each other, however well designed they are to work in tandem. Android can be customized to work without Google. Amazon.com's line of Kindle Fire tablets is the shining example of this strategy.
Kindle Fires have at their core the Android operating system, but that's the only thing they share in common with your "plain" or "vanilla" Android devices. Amazon has so heavily modified their fork of the Android project that it's virtually impossible to recognize it as Android at all. In fact, Amazon doesn't even refer to the Kindle Fire's firmware as Android at all and have rebranded it as "Fire OS," with the latest 3.0 release accompanying the HDX models being codenamed “Mojito.” Mojito and its predecessors are designed with one goal in mind and truly only this one goal: To get you to buy content from Amazon and no one else.
This is why you will never find any Google Play services on a Kindle Fire: Any content purchased from Google would not line the pockets of Jeff Bezos and Amazon’s shareholders. This practice has been a minor headache for CRRL Kindle Fire owners who want to use our Zinio digital magazine service: Amazon does not make the necessary app available to them through the Kindle app store, in an effort to force digital magazine acquisitions to come from Amazon and only Amazon (don't worry potential Fire purchasers, there is a way around this). Unlike Android, Fire OS is Amazon's proprietary software and cannot be obtained separately from an actual Kindle Fire, which is a shame given that Amazon has yet to release an Android app for its Instant Video service.
Barnes and Noble also went this route with their Nook OS. However, unlike Amazon, they did not work hard enough at courting content providers to build robust music, movie, TV show, and app offerings, making Nook tablets into the least desirable of all Android devices. Barnes and Noble has paid the price for their short-sightedness with flagging sales. They have now been forced to slash prices and to include Google Play services with the Nook HD tablet line in hopes that this will revive interest in their hardware, even if it means losing a lot of money in the short-term. Will it succeed? I personally don't think so, but for the time being this has made the Nook HD and the HD+ into the best bargain-bin Android tablets currently for sale.
Android is also finding its way into non-computer products. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a number of common appliances’ internal workings were found to be Android-powered, including an oven, a refrigerator, an air conditioner, and even a washer and dryer. All of this goes to support the concept of an Internet of Things in which not only our computers but indeed all of the things we interact with on a daily basis will be networked and interactive to some degree. This is not to say that you’ll be able to play Words with Friends on your air conditioner, just that the core of the device’s software is powered by Android and is, therefore, able to be networked with other devices.
So you see, Android has a much more storied and confusing history than Apple’s iOS. iOS is starting to become a little more colorful with the release of 4-inch iPhones, 8-inch iPad minis and a suspected 5-inch iPhone next year. These different screen sizes and resolutions combined with ever more powerful internal hardware is fracturing the iOS landscape more and more. Still, iOS will never become the King of Complexity - Android wears that crown and I don’t see them abdicating power anytime soon. Please note this is not a bragging right - it’s just what happens over time as popular software matures. Keep all of this in mind when my device guide comes out soon!