Why So Few People Are Using the Latest Version of Android

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

If you know anything about the Android operating system, then you’re probably aware that there’s something very wrong with Android’s update system. Google sells very few Nexus devices — the only smartphones that can get a software update immediately after Google releases it — and it takes far too long for smartphone manufacturers to release new devices with the latest version of the software, and for device makers and wireless carriers to finally roll out Android updates to their users.

So it should come as no surprise that the latest numbers on how many Android devices are running the latest versions of the software are pretty disappointing. According to the January update to Android’s “platform versions” data, just 32.6% of Android devices are running Android 5.0 to 5.1 Lollipop, which was released in 2014. Even worse? Just 0.7% of Android devices are running Android 6.0 Marshmallow, the latest version of the operating system.

That’s far fewer than are running each version of Android all the way back through version 2.3.3 to 2.3.7 Gingerbread, which was released in 2011 but still accounts for 3.0% of devices. The data is gathered from the new Google Play Store app, which supports Android 2.2 Froyo and above, so devices running even older versions of Android aren’t included. In August 2013, versions older than Android 2.2 accounted for approximately 1% of devices that checked in to Google’s servers. All not included in the data are Android devices that don’t have Google Play installed, which includes, for instance, numerous phones and tablets in China.

As Emil Protalinski reports for VentureBeat, it’s disappointing but not entirely surprising that as Lollipop finally passes 30% adoption, Marshmallow is struggling to reach 1%. Marshmallow debuted on September 29, when Google introduced the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P. But the devices didn’t begin shipping until October, which means that Marshmallow has had only about three months of availability. But as Protalinski notes, “A 0.7 percent adoption level after three months is terrible.” (And it also leaves 66.7% of Android devices using an operating system version that’s more than two years old.)

Protalinski points out that between December and January, the Android adoption order is still unchanged. KitKat 4.4 is in first place, Lollipop 5.0 to 5.1 is in second, Jelly Bean 4.1 to 4.2 is in third, Gingerbread 2.3.3 to 2.3.7 is in fourth, Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0.3 to 4.0.4 is in fifth, Marshmallow 6.0 is in sixth, and Froyo 2.2 is in seventh. He projects that within the next few months, Lollipop will take first place. But Marshmallow is unlikely to “assume the crown” until 2017 — years after its initial release.

Android’s situation contrasts dramatically with the adoption of iOS, Apple’s operating system for the iPhone and iPad. According to App Store data updated in January, 75% of iOS devices are running iOS 9, which was released in September 2015. Just 19% of iOS devices are running iOS 8, and 7% are running earlier versions of the operating system. As Juli Clover reports for MacRumors, iOS 9 adoption has outpaced iOS 8 adoption; four months after launch, iOS 8 was installed on 68% of active iOS devices. iOS 9 adoption has almost matched iOS 7 adoption, which saw that version of the operating system installed on 79% of devices four months after it was released in 2013.

iOS 9 saw what Apple called “the fastest adoption ever” when it hit the milestone of 50% adoption in September. At the time, the company reported that the software was on track to be downloaded by more users than any other software release in Apple’s history. The latest growth in iOS 9 adoption follows the December 8 release of iOS 9.2, which brought  improvements to Apple Music, Mail, and iBooks. Adoption will likely see another boost with the release of iOS 9.3, a version that is currently in beta and will introduce a new Night Shift mode, add new Quick Actions, and make improvements to Notes Apple News, Health, and CarPlay.

As The Cheat Sheet reported last fall, Google realizes that Android has a problem, but even the company’s new commitment to rolling out critical security updates each month can’t do much to fix the situation. Google can deploy security fixes as quickly as it wants to, but since Android has no real update system, getting Google’s security fixes to the end user is up to each smartphone maker and wireless carrier.

Updates are unique to each device, and manufacturers and carriers have to test each version from Google on each of their devices before making their own additions and rolling the software out to users. Most of the time, users end up waiting indeterminate or even interminable periods of time for critical security patches. It’s a model that’s hard to envision scaling to billions of users. At some point, Google is going to have to reclaim responsibility for Android’s update program — but such a solution is likely still years of slow adoption and even slower updates away.

However, Lance Whitney reports for CNET that Marshmallow’s adoption is, hard as it might be to believe, moving more quickly than that of its predecessor, Lollipop. Lollipop was released in November of 2014, but didn’t show up on Google’s dashboard — which, to refresh your memory, only registers versions with an adoption rate above 0.1% — until February 2015.

Marshmallow comes preinstalled on the new Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P, and made it to other Nexus devices beginning on October 5. LG began pushing the update to its flagship G4 smartphone later in October, though only for users in Poland. Smartphone makers including Motorola, Sony, and Samsung are targeting Marshmallow rollouts sometime in the first half of 2016, and because of its large reach, Samsung is expected to increase Marshmallow’s share when it begins pushing the new version of Android to its flagship devices.

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