29% of Android is Forked (AOSP) Android

abiresearch.gifIt seems to be research release season and ABI has also reported numbers for smartphone shipments. However, this time we have a breakdown of what proportion of Android is forked (AOSP). That is, Android devices that aren’t sanctioned by Google, haven’t passed compatibility testing and don’t have Google Apps and Google Play Services (at least not legally anyway). 

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ABI’s prediction that AOSP growth, relative to non-AOSP, would decline has come to fruition. Assuming the lower shipment numbers it has stabilised (-1% change month on month) at about 29% of all Android devices.

Android shipments are now decreasing month on month mainly due to Apple’s brilliant 90% growth. 

UPDATE: Changed value from 41% to 29% as the first row in the table, despite its generic naming ‘Android’, doesn’t include the second.

Forked Android Growth Slowing

abiresearch.gifABI has research that shows forked Android growth is set to slow in 2015. China’s growth is slowing and Google’s Android One initiative is "seeing some significant wins among Indian manufacturers like Micromax, Karbonn, Spice, Intex, and Lava, as well as some of the more International Chinese brands like Lenovo and Alcatel."

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This is good news for developers as, in time, it will reduce the number of devices that don’t have Google Play Services. Google Play Services is becoming more and more important to developers as components get unbundled from the OS into Play Services and the Play Store.

It seems Android One will be more successful than I expected. I was sceptical. Getting ‘low cost’ OEMs to use Android One is being driven by the availability of low cost reference designs from Qualcomm and MediaTek. In the distant past we saw similar efforts by Symbian and Microsoft meet with only partial success. This time it seems Google has the momentum to see this strategy through. 

WebView Unbundling

arstechnica.gifThere’s an interesting post on ars technica on "Unwrapping Lollipop" talking to "high ranking members of the Android team" about changes to the OS. It includes a very useful breakdown of what’s now in the Android OS, what’s in Play services and what’s distributed via the Play Store.

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Of particular interest is that WebView has been unbundled and now comes from the Play Store. The idea is to be able to more-easily (auto) update WebView for performance and security reasons. However, this won’t be for pre-Lollipop devices. In the near-term, there will still be a large number of old devices on old and varied versions of WebView. Also, unbundling has the side-effect that, going forward, non-Google sanctioned, AOSP-derived devices won’t have the latest WebView. Google will obviously care less about this but it will affect the 20% of developers on those platforms.

Android Device Churn

bidouulle.pngBidouille has some great charts showing how Android version distribution has changed over time. They are based on values taken, over time, from Google’s own Android dashboard. However, remember there’s possibility that these charts might not represent the actual distribution of devices as not all devices (or users) access the Play Store.

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What with few manufacturers updating older devices to newer versions of the OS and those that do taking a long time to do so, it’s surprising to me that so many devices now run 4.0.3 or better. So what has been causing people to change their devices so soon? It might have something to do with tariff contract lengths. It might even have something to do with the use of contract-free SIMs where people can upgrade their phone any time. It’s almost certainly to do with the enticement of improved devices over the last few years. Looking forward, there might be another driver.

Yetserday, Lookout wrote about the Android browser bug and how it affects about 45% of users. They said…

"If you have a phone that does not have the option to update to a newer Android OS version (4.3), unfortunately you may need to upgrade your device to a newer, more readily patched version"

In some ways it’s odd that one of Android’s failings, that of slow or non-existent OEM OS upgrades, might cause more people to buy a new device to be on a more secure Android version, which, in turn, will reduce OS fragmentation to the benefit of the platform.

Android AOSP Devices and Development

abiresearch.gifABI Research has some interesting findings in that Forked Android AOSP grew 20% quarter-on-quarter and now accounts for about 20% of the market. Chinese and Indian vendors accounted for the majority of smartphone shipments for the first time with 51% share.

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Some people might think AOSP implies Chinese devices for use in China. However, this isn’t necessarily so. From a developer perspective, I am also finding I am using forked AOSP more than previously, especially where a vertical solution needs to use a particular device. More recently I have worked on health, hospitality and consumer electronics solutions centred around particular AOSP devices.

How does AOSP development differ? First of all, you can’t use any APIs that require Play Services. This includes things such as the maps, push notifications and in app billing. You obviously also can’t use the Play store for distribution. A more serious limitation, for me at least, as been the lack of developer support. In particular, no ADB drivers to allow debugging on some devices. I have also previously written about non-conformant APIs.

Chromecast and Android Limitations

chrome.pngAs you probably know, Google have made Chromecast available in 11 more countries (Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the U.K). The SDK is available for Android and iOS developers. The idea is that developers add the SDK libraries to existing apps to allow content to be viewed on the TV. More information is available in the Developers Guide.

One of the advantages of Chromecast over Apple TV is that the latter only works with Apple devices. Chromecast works from iOS, Android and the Chrome browser in laptops/desktops (Mac, Windows and Linux). This offers a new wide-ranging outlet for media owners.

Surprisingly, Chromecast on Android is more limited than on the other platforms. The Android SDK relies on Google Play Services (4.2+) which means Chromecast apps won’t work on AOSP (non-Google sanctioned) devices. This means it won’t work on forked versions of Android such as the Kindle Fire, Nokia X and many inexpensive Chinese tablets. Media owners such as the BBC are concerned about this and say, particularly of the Kindle…

"We recognize that the Kindle is an important device for BBC iPlayer in terms of usage and we have, on behalf of our users, asked Google to do what they can to support this platform." 

It’s an interesting dilemma for Google. Should they relax access to Chromecast thus enabling the types of device, the use of which, they wish to discourage. I suppose the answer comes down to this – What’s more important for Google, Chromecast or Android?

Microsoft, Android and The Guardian

guardian.gifThe Guardian has an article by Charles Arthur on how "Satya Nadella must kill Windows Phone and fork Android". While I agree Microsoft’s Windows Phone efforts are doomed, I don’t think forking the OS would be as simple as it seems. Charles says…

"Most useful of all, developers who have written Android apps would be able to port them over with minimal effort"

I am the side of VisionMobile who say, in their latest Developer Economics Report, that…

"Google has moved 10s of its own apps and APIs outside the Open Source android Project (AOSP) so that Android apps that rely on certain Google  apps and APIs – including Calendar, Location API, Maps, Push Notifications, Account syncing & authentication – will not run directly on forked versions of Android, unless explicitly modified for the forked OS version. Most developers will not invest the extra effort required to port their apps unless porting gives them access to 10s of millions more devices or markedly higher revenues per user."

I suppose the question is whether Microsoft’s use of Android would provide for "10s of millions more devices". It would be a ‘chicken and egg’ situation similar to which Microsoft already finds itself with Windows Phone. It’s very difficult to grow the market unless you are one of the first in the market.

UPDATE: ArsTechnica has posted a contentious article Neither Microsoft, Nokia, nor anyone else should fork Android. It’s unforkable. Also read Google’s Dianne Hackborn’s defensive response.