Ask LH: What The Heck Is Happening With Android Releases?

Dear 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, exactly? Sincerely, Astonished by Android

Dear Astonished,

Joke's on you—Android 2.4 might actually be named "Ice Cream Sandwich"! The lesson is, never try and guess what's coming with Android.

Seriously, though, 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 colour in some of this rather later-Picasso-esque picture.

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

A 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

Less 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 US, and due in Australia through Vodafone later this year), 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, which is a "reference hardware" for developers' use, but publicly available. 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

The 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.

Cheers Lifehacker

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


Comments

    I am waiting to take the dive into the Android world. I've had an iphone for 2 years and feel my IQ and EQ have dropped 50%.

    Why oh WHY do Google continue to turn what is a tantalising product into a complete dogs breakfast. It pains me to the bones but Google needs to learn a bit of Apple promo.

      Versioning is a dogs breakfast but really, that doesn't have to affect you as a user. Android works. These aren't usability updates to get it to market - these are just tweaks to a fully functioning mobile OS. Buy a phone, get Android on it and it will be great. Update when your carrier pushes out an update and it will be better. Roll your sleeves up and get into updating yourself (or changing it completely with your own ROM) to be on the cutting edge. Easy.

      Upgraded from iPhone (3G) to Samsung Galaxy S when my contract expired. Android has its flaws (occasional devestating lag) and Apple has its advantages (Music player. Can't find anything to get continuous play on Android) but despite all this I'd pick an Android phone again.

      Handcent SMS, and the ability to deactivate your phone's connection to things really easily (GPS, WiFi, Data Network [big one to save battery life]) is unrivalled. If you're not going to be near power for 2+ days, it's so much more useful having an Android phone.

    I'm looking to get the huawei x3 which supposedly comes out in April (a month after my birthday!!) it's supposed to have android 2.3 which I thought would be exciting but apparently not. (I've never owned an android I have no idea about android so please can someone send me to a LH guide or something because I'm trying to do my homework here.)

    thanks

    There is no reason for a new product to come onto the market with anything less than the latest update.
    As a gingerbread user, the bare unmodified product is great without any carrier/manufacturer add ons easily the best system I have ever used.

    That being said, I think it is a mistake to buy a product assuming it will be upgraded. I don't know of any other product that gets usability updates (not fixes) more than once or twice in a products life cycle, and even then I could count the number using both hands.

    However, companies still shipping 1.6 are doing a disservice to their customers, and should be avoided.

    All i'm waiting for is a dual core phone to make its way to Australia thats running android then i'll upgrade to a smart phone

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