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Should Android developers abandon Gingerbread and only support Android 4.0+?

Posted: , by Michael H.

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Should Android developers abandon Gingerbread and only support Android 4.0+?
The tide is turning. Android devices are continually being upgraded, and older handsets traded in for new. As such, Android 2.3 Gingerbread has finally fallen below 50% of the Android ecosystem; and, within the next few months, Android 2.x should also fall below 50%, while Android 4.0+ gains the majority of the ecosystem. So, we think it's fair to ask the question: should Android developers abandon Android 2.x and only support Android 4.0+?

Some may say that it's too early to be asking the question, but we don't agree. Android 2.x devices aren't just becoming a smaller and smaller subset of the Android ecosystem as a whole, but those who still have Android 2.x handsets at this point are either: A) coming up for an upgrade very soon, or B) users who purposefully chose an older device (likely because of cost), and may not even use apps as much as those with newer handsets. And, in the meantime, developers often have to spend a considerable amount of resources to build apps that support older handsets, even though it leads to buggier performance. 

Developer considerations

Should Android developers abandon Gingerbread and only support Android 4.0+?
The general argument against the idea of developing for Android 4.0+ only is that you would be blocking out over half of the Android ecosystem in the process, but it isn't exactly clear how much value there is for developers in that user base. Obviously, as a developer you have to know your target audience, and your capabilities as far as how much time, energy, and resources it would take to build your app for various users. If it isn't going to be too much work to add support for Android 2.x and you'll gain access to a much bigger user base, then it makes perfect sense to do so. But, if your app is targeting power users, there is almost no reason to spend any time or energy building for Android 2.x. 

Beyond that, there are also things that developers have to keep in mind as far as what it means to add support for Android 2.x. We have to remember that the Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich update was huge for Android. Not only did it completely redesign the system, but it unified the phone and tablet SDK with the fragments system, which brought really good responsive design tools, and flat out made developing for Android a lot easier by adding a bunch of new libraries. The APIs are better, the development is easier, and the resulting apps perform more smoothly, and don't crash as often. 

That's something that many people don't understand: the simple act of adding support for Android 2.x to your app will make your app less stable. You know all of those terrible stereotypes that people have about Android being laggy and crash prone? Those came to be because of what the system was before Android 4.0 came around, and the few issues that are still hanging around are due in part because of apps "needing" to support the old system. 

So, after developers decide what the target audience is for their app, and decide if the extra work, and added instability, is worth what they'll be getting back from the user base. The idea here is that even if you're okay with the performance hit, and you can gain access to a 20% larger audience with only 5% more work, it seems like a no-brainer to support Android 2.x. But, we want to look into how much value that audience really holds for developers.

The Android 2.x user base

Should Android developers abandon Gingerbread and only support Android 4.0+?
As we have already mentioned, the Android 2.x user base is shrinking. It should drop below 50% within the next couple months; and, some estimates say that by the end of 2013, Android 2.x could make up as little as 15% of the ecosystem. With that in mind, it seems far more reasonable for a developer to go with an Android 4.0+ policy when working on a new app. Depending on the scope of the app and the resources of the development team, it could easily take a few months to build an app; and, the longer it takes, the smaller the 2.x user base gets. 

There is also the question of just how valuable that user base is. At this point in the life cycle of Android 2.x, some new budget phones still sell with Gingerbread installed, but most have an update to Ice Cream Sandwich available the first time the customer boots it up. That means the only people left on 2.x are either users waiting on upgrades that may never come (sorry T-Mobile G2x users), or new phone contracts (that can't be longer than about 6 months at the outside), or users who don't care enough to tap the "software update" notification that's sitting in their notification tray. 

The first group has a way out soon enough, and the second group is far less likely to notice or care that there are apps in the Play Store that they can't use because their phones are incompatible. Even if a user with an Android 2.3 phone goes into the Play Store, it's not very likely that they are going to be spending money on apps for the phone they got for free on contract. If money is a concern for one, it will be a concern for the other. 

The Android 4.x user base

Should Android developers abandon Gingerbread and only support Android 4.0+?
On the other side of things, the Android 4.x user base is steadily growing. Most new phones, even those on the budget end either ship with Android 4.x or there is an upgrade available. Remember, the requirements for Android 4.0 are a single core CPU and a slightly more powerful GPU (aka the Nexus S), so there's no reason why current budget phones can't handle the update to Ice Cream Sandwich at the least. And, with new flagship devices from Samsung, HTC, Sony, and Motorola expected in the next few months, the 4.x numbers are only going to climb faster. Beyond that, users on the higher end of the Android version spectrum are far more active users. Take a look at current phenomenon DashClock for example. 

DashClock is an app that only runs on the four newest Nexus devices right now, but in just a few weeks on the market, it has reached the 100,000-500,000 download tier in the Play Store. The app has become so popular that there are already dozens of extensions for the app, and more coming all the time. The same can be said for both new apps for Android with the name Carbon. One is a Twitter client and the other is the cloud backup solution by Koush, but both have quickly jumped up on the download charts, even though they are Android 4.0+ apps. 

We asked around in various forums around the web and on Google+, and a lot of developers said that download numbers don't reflect the platform version spread as seen in the monthly numbers. Android 4.x user often make up 60-75% of app downloads even though the platform distribution numbers put 4.x at less than 45% of the market (based on the numbers released earlier this month). 

And, of course, that's all just talking about the phone side of things. The Android tablet market is growing extremely fast, and has removed the word "dominant" from the iPad's lead. As few phones as there are that don't yet have Android 4.x, there are no worthwhile tablets that aren't running Ice Cream Sandwich at the very least. There may be an outside shot that a smartphone user on Gingerbread will be angry that your app doesn't support their device, but anyone who has a tablet running Android 2.x has no argument at all. If you willingly bought a tablet that is running the version of Android that came before the official tablet optimization, you shouldn't be any developer's target market. 

Conclusion

We're not saying that all developers need to abandon Android 2.x. Casual game makers especially will find value in the waning market segment, and if you're making something as simple as a calculator app or to-do list, you may need all the available audience you can find. But, if you're looking to build an app that is more advanced, and has more functionality, it may be worth it to focus only on the Android 4.x ecosystem (even with Android 5.0 likely on the way). 

The Android tablet market is growing extremely fast, and the entire segment is Android 4.x. The Android 2.x segment is shrinking by the day, and giving way to Android 4.x. The development tools are better for 4.x, development is easier, and the apps built for 4.x are more visually appealing, perform better, and are more stable. 

And, there's the argument that we haven't mentioned yet: Developers could be helping to push Android updates by dropping support for older platforms. Think about it, if more developers adopt a 4.0 minimum policy, it may anger some users, but that anger could then be directed towards manufacturers/carriers that haven't been updating devices. Casual users may not notice or understand that they are missing out on system features because they don't get software updates, but if their favorite apps were suddenly incompatible, that could help push manufacturers to be better than they are. 

special thanks to the members of the +Android Development, +NEXUS, and +Android Design communities on Google+ for their help!

49 Comments
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posted on 24 Feb 2013, 17:41 17

1. PhoneArenaUser (Posts: 5465; Member since: 05 Aug 2011)


PhoneArena.com may hide author's name but I would know anyway who is the author of article. Thanks, Michael H. for nice article. :)

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 18:03 20

2. D.Aceveda (Posts: 359; Member since: 30 Jun 2012)


Should Michael H stop posting questions for titles of articles?

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 18:13 18

7. MichaelHeller (Posts: 2657; Member since: 26 May 2011)


Ha! You made me check through, and I definitely have been doing that too much recently. I'll try to be better!

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 18:04 2

4. techguy22 (Posts: 226; Member since: 09 Aug 2012)


eh no. majority of android phones are low ends and also on gingerbread. that is a terrible idea.

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 18:09 16

5. JonBjSig (Posts: 176; Member since: 17 Nov 2011)


Did you not read the article?

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 18:27 5

9. Berzerk000 (Posts: 3940; Member since: 26 Jun 2011)


Eh, no. The majority of Androids on Gingerbread are 2 year old phones anxiously waiting to be upgraded, or phones whose owners aren't willing to part with them. I know plenty of people with Droid X's and original Galaxy S's and their owners just won't upgrade because their phone works the way they want it to and don't want to transition to a new device.

Also, a small part of the market (maybe 1 or 2%) have the 4.x update ready for them, they just don't update it. My friend didn't upgrade her Razr to ICS for 3 months after it was available.

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 18:34

10. tiara6918 (Posts: 1349; Member since: 26 Apr 2012)


There are many android phones that are low end(galaxy y for example runs gingerbread)but majority are already running ics and up

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 20:19 5

37. wendygarett (unregistered)


I'm in Asia, and most Asian choose gingerbread more than other until now, not just because of the cost, buy also the Adobe flash....

before the bash, we all know that flash can installed via apk. But Asian know how to value their money and time... They don't waste their extra cash and extra time at the same time just to get flash on jellybean, where you can get cheaper and flash-ready-made device Everywhere...

The reason you say it's terrible idea is because you stayed in the advanced country like Europe or America, where flash is almost extinct... But in Asia still, half of its website still need flash...

posted on 29 Dec 2013, 11:06

49. LuisAlberto (Posts: 1; Member since: 29 Dec 2013)


Sorry but It makes no sense what you just say because the reason doesn't want provide flash player for android devices is because there's an app for everything these days, and the app work way faster than web version, and i think that was the best thing they could do, because using a browser (for example) to use facebook or google+ i think its more slow than using its native app. But i understand your point, but would be better if you buy a new phone because youll be able to reach those apps that before just were able to reach using flash on web.

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 18:15 1

8. yowanvista (Posts: 299; Member since: 20 Sep 2011)


Personally nope, a lot of users still own 2.2-2.3 devices and only few of those 2.3 devices were updated to ICS yet alone JB. Not supporting Gingerbread is kinda dumb for now, it may seem plausible when the user base drops significantly or when Google itself discontinues it. (Which won't happen until Froyo gets dropped).

"the simple act of adding support for Android 2.x to your app will make your app less stable" - I disagree, the Android SDK allows developers to target any post-GB API level without compromising any aspect of your App (unless you're using specific features introduced in 4.0+). You don't need to port Apps to GB, Apps made using the Android Design Guidelines will work fine on GB, they'll even feature the new Holo UI if the developer decides to implement it.

On the long run GB may however hold Android back if its user base doesn't decrease, that would force developers to avoid the usage of new elements in their Apps.

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 18:44

12. luis_lopez_351 (Posts: 951; Member since: 18 Nov 2010)


The next thing you know, Android becomes exclusive to Google's(USA) Motorola. After all, Americans are finally realizing that we need to be more competitive in order to keep the life styles we use to have.

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 18:44 3

13. 14545 (Posts: 1100; Member since: 22 Nov 2011)


They should continue to support the old platform for one main reason. If they don't, they don't run the risk of pissing off the customer at the manufacturer, they run the risk of pissing them off at the entire platform and pushing them away to apple/windows/BB. (mainly apple though). As the customers that are running 2.2-2.3 are usually not as forgiving towards a platform and will be more likely to jump ship if their favorite apps just up and stop working.

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 18:52 6

18. MichaelHeller (Posts: 2657; Member since: 26 May 2011)


That's what I'm really curious about. There is definitely the risk that people will jump ship to another platform, but before that happens wouldn't they realize that a big problem is that their device never got an update to the newer Android? Couldn't that push manufacturers to be better about updates, because otherwise users will go to another platform?

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 19:05

22. 14545 (Posts: 1100; Member since: 22 Nov 2011)


"but before that happens wouldn't they realize that a big problem is that their device never got an update to the newer Android"

One would think that it would be the logical thing to do. But most people aren't logical. My fear is they will just buy into the "fragmentation" hype and assume it is a platform problem. Not saying that I am 100% correct on this, but I do know the people like my fiancee would be the first to find one article online bashing the platform on updates and jump ship. But she, along with many of the others on 2.3 or earlier, also don't buy apps, so it is a double edged sword. She has said to me more than once "why should I pay for apps". From seeing how she responds, and the other none "techies" I'm around, I don't see them doing much research into the issue.

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 19:09 1

23. MichaelHeller (Posts: 2657; Member since: 26 May 2011)


Yeah. The problem is that for the best results on this, Google would have to make apps visible in the Play Store with the label "This app requires a newer version of Android", but I'm not sure Google would do that.

It falls in line with the gentle push strategy that Google tends to use to get manufacturers to update faster, but it might be a bit too shaming, and annoy manufacturers.

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 19:19

27. 14545 (Posts: 1100; Member since: 22 Nov 2011)


I wish Google would do away with the gentle push strategy and force the manufacturers to update phones for 24 months in order to continue gaining access to Gapps on their upcoming phones. You might lose samsung with Bada, but HTC and others would be forced to fall in line. As they don't have the software experience/marketing to start a full blown market on their own. I know this is a pipe dream, but it would be nice to see google take a firm stance for once. It would be for the benefit of the entire platform.

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 19:34 2

32. MichaelHeller (Posts: 2657; Member since: 26 May 2011)


Google has the market share to be able to push harder. People are tied to Android, so bada and Tizen aren't realistic options right now. Windows Phone would be a more reasonable option for Samsung and HTC.

I just don't see Google changing the strategy though.

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 20:30

40. rusticguy (Posts: 2826; Member since: 11 Aug 2012)


In emerging markets with no Carrier Subsidized phones that risk of jumping to another platform is pretty low. They would just buy a made in China phone or a local brand with latest android version...

If i am getting Micromax A116 for 14k in India why should i buy LUMIA 7x with inferior HW specs for 18k. (INR)

posted on 25 Feb 2013, 02:49

44. iDroid8 (Posts: 155; Member since: 16 Oct 2012)


Most users who are on GB have low end phones that will never be updated to ICS, like galaxy y or htc explorer
and imo, these are the unlikeliest to move to ios-which has no offering is this bracket
as for BB, GB is much better than BB7 and BB10 is way too expensive
even W8 range starts much higher than android

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 18:44

14. evarod48 (Posts: 137; Member since: 30 Oct 2012)


still have gbread on my Droid Incredible. I'm up for an upgrade, but I'm patiently waiting for Verizon to get HTC One, Lumia 920, or S4

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 18:49

16. 14545 (Posts: 1100; Member since: 22 Nov 2011)


VZW isn't getting the one. It will never happen. So you might as well get the DNA, or something else. VZW has already, IIRC, confirmed such since they have the DNA. It's like the Rezound was to the One X.

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 18:54 1

19. gmracer1 (Posts: 646; Member since: 28 Dec 2012)


yeah dude, VZW is not getting the One or 920. There is, however, a new Lumia coming to Verizon. It should be on par with the 920.

I think the DNA, S3, and Razr HD/Maxx HD are the only phones currently worth getting (if you can't wait for something new)

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 18:50

17. gmracer1 (Posts: 646; Member since: 28 Dec 2012)


The majority of GB users are on Boost/Virgin/Metro and other crappy carriers. In terms of the long run, GB should be killed so it forces manufacturers to get on par with up-to-date software and devices. A ton of my custs were so unhappy with older Androids, so it put bad tastes in their mouths and made them switch to other devices--like an iPhone or WP.

I'm sure there are plenty of rebuttals, but those are my thoughts.

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 19:01 4

21. BiN4RY (Posts: 80; Member since: 22 Jun 2012)


Android 2.3 is like the Windows XP of Android. It's the perfect OS for low end and older phones

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 19:12

24. MichaelHeller (Posts: 2657; Member since: 26 May 2011)


"Low-end" is a constantly changing idea, and even low-end phones can run Android 4.0 these days. Remember, all you need to run Android 4.0 is a single-core CPU and a moderately good GPU (aka the Nexus S).

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 19:13 1

25. Maxim6194 (Posts: 6; Member since: 24 Dec 2012)


I disagreed with that. My phone was considered top of line (Samsung Infuse) when I bought it less than two years ago. It launched on foyo in the gb era and only got gb after a year. Many devices were abandoned and never got the ics jump.

Motorola
-atrix
-droid 3

Htc
-droid incredible 2
-inspire

Samsung
-infuse
-droid charge
-gs1

These are all phones that were considered high end on AT&T and Verizon in 2011 into 2012. None of which have received ics.

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 19:17

26. MichaelHeller (Posts: 2657; Member since: 26 May 2011)


As mentioned in the article, those abandoned devices are all coming up to the end of contract within the next 6 months at the latest. So, developers leaving those devices behind might not be so bad, because the users will be getting new phones soon enough anyway.

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 19:22 1

29. Maxim6194 (Posts: 6; Member since: 24 Dec 2012)


As an example, the droid charge was only discontinued late summer 2012. To the people that didn't know any better it probably seems like a great deal and ended up buying it as it neared eol. Thus those people will still have the phone for over a year.

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 19:24 1

30. biophone (Posts: 1893; Member since: 15 Jun 2011)


What about the people who don't want to lose there unlimited data plan on verizon or pay full price for a new phone?

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 19:37 1

34. MichaelHeller (Posts: 2657; Member since: 26 May 2011)


Those people make their choice. I don't see why Google and Android need to hold back progress for the few people that want to keep their grandfathered plan. If you choose that path, you shouldn't expect to have all of the newest software available to you.

If you buy a used Mac, do you expect to have the newest software available? No. But, that doesn't stop the tech from moving forward.

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 22:41

43. biophone (Posts: 1893; Member since: 15 Jun 2011)


They should be able to download apps though.

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 19:39

35. Berzerk000 (Posts: 3940; Member since: 26 Jun 2011)


They'll either stick with the phone they have or consider switching to other carriers with unlimited plans (i.e T-Mobile and Sprint). Maybe a handful of them all will find their way into the rooting and modding life, which is really the best of both worlds; keep your unlimited data and get updated.

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 19:55

36. BattleBrat (Posts: 1055; Member since: 26 Oct 2011)


This is why I'm Glad I got my RAZR the second it came out, JB is on it's way and then in a few months I get the MOTO X / GS IV It worked out perfectly

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 20:23 1

39. akbar (Posts: 62; Member since: 09 Feb 2012)


They might be coming to the end of contract in US, but please think for the rest of the world where not everybody is getting their phones "fro free". If I gave 400-500 USD for a phone I might expect it to last more than 2 years.

posted on 25 Feb 2013, 03:24

45. faisolbauuz (Posts: 121; Member since: 05 Jan 2013)


Well its simple just flash any 4.x custom rom on your device and boom you get ics/jb,worried about your warranty ? Just reflash your phone to its original rom

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 19:30 1

31. Maxim6194 (Posts: 6; Member since: 24 Dec 2012)


I believe it's a fundamental flaw of the whole android exosystem, dare I bring up the "f" word we all dearly hate. This is an area where windows phone and iOS really do beat Android. Manufactures are reluctant to update their phones, and carriers sell android devices far too long.

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 19:37

33. rusticguy (Posts: 2826; Member since: 11 Aug 2012)


I really don't know why so much of a debate when mo0re than 4 billion apps haven;'t been downloaded ever ... yea i wrote "billion" intentionally :D

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 20:21

38. akbar (Posts: 62; Member since: 09 Feb 2012)


They should. I am using Moto XT560 - the only half decent phone with landscape QWERTY and there are no plans to upgrade it. I guess there are also other people still using flagship devices form a few years ago and would not like to upgrade.
I am already pissed as a lot of the applications I am using are not recognizing the move of my 4-way Dpad or the menu key.
Also I don't like the buttons on Android 4 (I have Nexus 7 as well so I know from experience)

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 21:57

41. 9thWonderful (Posts: 230; Member since: 24 Jan 2013)


Leave Gingerbread behind. I'm tired of having to deal w/the software backlash that comes with people that just want a "cheap" smart phone. If these people want to move forward let them upgrade, buy a new phone, purchase off eBay or be lucky enough to receive a hand-me-down of a newer phone.

posted on 24 Feb 2013, 22:15

42. weedl (Posts: 50; Member since: 05 Oct 2012)


mine still gb 2.3 need 4 but never see the light from the maker so must use clockmodwork

posted on 25 Feb 2013, 05:02

46. iBananaScoop (Posts: 13; Member since: 28 May 2012)


"A) coming up for an upgrade very soon, or B) users who purposefully chose an older device (likely because of cost), and may not even use apps as much as those with newer handsets"
C) Poor students who cannot afford an upgrade just yet but aren't complete noobs when it comes to apps and specs.

It's a bit sad we were all put in two groups, none of which apply to me :( ah well, upgrade we shall see each other soon

posted on 25 Feb 2013, 08:49

47. ddragon2105 (Posts: 2; Member since: 17 Jul 2011)


I think that they should just focus on 4.0+ if they can get everyone on 4.0+ lol. That way you won't have to worry about anything under 4.0. Also, if the majority of Adnroid devices were on 4.0+, then it would make sense to only focus on 4.0+ but that's not the case.

posted on 31 May 2013, 22:00

48. divinituss (Posts: 1; Member since: 31 May 2013)


I agree with the author. Had been developing for API level 15+ since fall last year. Unless you can make do with HoloEverywhere, no hardware acceleration and unelegant option menus, I strongly suggest developers to target higher API levels during development.

Or at least as far as developing apps for the community, I don't see a need to support older devices and risk jeopardising the user experience. Those with older devices will not even see your app listed in the Play Store anyway.

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