This year’s Google I/O came and went without a new version of Android, and there was much griping on the internet. Even though Google isn’t required to announce anything of consumer interest at a developer event, the past few I/O conferences have made it clear this is Google’s big software show. Everyone watches and waits on the big reveal, but this year we got nothing--or did we?
While it may appear at first blush that Google I/O 2013 was a bust, it was actually an incredibly important step for Google. This is the event when Google finally beat fragmentation.
If you paid close attention to the developer talks and API announcements, there were some enticing tidbits about the future of Android. For example, Google made it clear that Bluetooth Low Energy (AKA Bluetooth SMART) was coming to Android, but not under existing OS versions. No, this Bluetooth 4.0 implementation would be part of the platform in API level 18. Jelly Bean 4.2 is API level 17. There were also various server log and benchmark leaks -- the kind of stuff we always see when a new OS is imminent.
Hints like this indicate there is a newer version of Android that is far enough along that it has a finalized Bluetooth stack and is being tested on internal Google devices. Rumors can’t always be trusted, but the word is that Google was prepared to announce Android 4.3 at Google I/O, but decided to hold back and make a point. What point? Simply, Google doesn’t need a new version of Android to rollout new services to users.
Look at the Android announcements that did happen: Hangouts, Google Play Games, app data sync, Play Music All Access, and synced notifications. Those are neat features, but no one is going to convince Android fans it’s as sexy as a new version of the platform. However, the impact might be even greater than if Google had announced Android 4.3.
Imagine that Google had shown off a new version of Android; let’s even say that it was extremely impressive. After hearing the news, most Android users would look at their Galaxy S3 or Droid RAZR Maxx HD, and feel a mixture of annoyance and apathy. When Google announces a new version of Android, it only has an immediate effect on Nexus owners, which make up a small percentage of total Android users. The new services Google announced affect almost every Android phone in the world.
Phones running Gingerbread or higher got these new features. According to the latest platform numbers that’s nearly 95% of active Android devices. Google is proving that it can improve the Android experience without waiting for every OEM and carrier to get device updates deployed. That's worth a small delay.
It's All In Play
Google is essentially changing the inner working and updating core apps without a new version of Android, but how? The key to this move is the Google Play Services framework. Google beefed up Play Services a while back, giving it the ability to deploy new features and sync settings. You probably received the new Play Store APK recently, but did you have to install it? Nope, Google took care of that for you, and that's just the start.
Google is increasingly relying on Play to push Android forward, and that gives it the ability to make something like Play Games available on almost all Android devices immediately. It just adds some new sync settings, and your game data suddenly lives in the cloud like your email or documents.
Another major Android shift is Hangouts, an app that replaces Google Talk. Despite Talk being part of the core OS, Google leveraged the Play Store to roll Hangouts out to almost everyone. There were a few hiccups on non-stock ROMs, but Hangouts has been successfully deployed on most Android devices in a few days. This has been an ongoing process for Google as it slowly moves previously bundled apps into the Play Store. It happened with Gmail, Calendar, and others, but this is the first time an entire service was transformed with an app update.
Delaying Android gave Google the opportunity to show that it can improve the experience without ramming updates through OEMs and carriers. Mountain View knew everyone was watching, and it put on a show designed to make a point. All Google needs is the robust Play framework and an internet connection.
The End of Version Numbers
Google has expressed a desire in the past to do away with version numbers in Chrome, and maybe the same will happen for Android, though for different reasons. Instead of fretting over which version of Android your device has, maybe in the future all the features that matter will be updated remotely by Google. We might soon live in a world where we care as little about the Android version as we do about the Linux kernel version underlying it.
A new version of Android down the road might mean a new Bluetooth stack, or updated radio firmware -- the boring stuff. Interface changes are already becoming minor for most users. OEMs usually skin the OS in whatever way they choose, and will maintain most of that branding through multiple versions of the platform. Nexus users are often the only people who see what Android really looks like.
Android has also come a long way in the last few years. It has has become more friendly and feature-complete, and that might mean fewer major OS updates are required. Google likely doesn’t want a minor 4.1-4.2 sort of bump every six months. Better to just roll up the OS-level changes in more infrequent updates with Play Services features filling in the space between.
There is no way to know when Google will announce the next version of Android until it has happened. Although, the rumor mill is currently buzzing about mid-June as the big unveiling. Android 4.3 or 5.0. Jelly Bean MR2, or Key Lime Pie. It might not matter as much as you think.