Android: State of the Platform

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Android: State of the Platform
Every once in a while, it's worth it to take a moment both to reflect and look forward; and, with that in mind, this is the first of a (potential) four-parter that will look at the changes that have happened on each of the three major mobile platforms over the past year, where those platforms are headed in the coming year, and the last part will take a look at the new challengers on the way. It can be surprising the amount of change you'll see over the course of a year, especially when we usually focus on the incremental changes that happen day-to-day. 

Over the next few weeks, we'll go through all of the major platforms - Android, iOS, and Windows Phone - and, if we have time, we'll also take a look at the smaller challengers either attempting to fight its way back (BlackBerry) or the new options on the way - Tizen, Firefox OS, Ubuntu, and Jolla. We'll work our way through from top to bottom in terms of market share, because ranking which platform is the best in terms of features and experience is a very subjective undertaking that is best left done on an individual basis. That means we will be starting with the current market leader: Android.

Where Android has come from

In terms of raw shipment numbers, Android has been an absolute beast once again, which is why we're starting the series with Android (and why there is so much to talk about with the platform. If you haven't noticed yet, this is a loooong article, so feel free to take it in chunks or Pocket it). 

According to numbers from Canalys, Android shipped 481.5 million smartphones in 2012, which was good enough for 68.8% of the global smartphone market. Apparently, that wasn't quite enough, because in 2013 Android shipped 781.2 million smartphones, which raised its global market share to 78.9%. Let's just take a moment to let that sink in. Globally, there were close to 1 billion smartphones shipped throughout 2013, and almost 80% of those were running Android. That is pretty insane. While lower-end handsets do account for a fair number of those handsets, but the only region where iOS is beating Android is Japan so Android is also taking a fair amount of the high-end in most regions as well. 

If we dig into the numbers a bit more, there are even more interesting tidbits to find. It was recently estimated that in Q4 of 2013, 75% of all Android devices shipped were running Google Android, while 25% of devices didn't include Google services. That would be a small number of devices from Amazon, but the majority of those non-Google Androids were in regions like China and Russia; and, a fair number of the non-Google Androids in China were running Xiaomi's MIUI fork of the platform. 

Devices running Android without Google services is a part of the ecosystem that Google has always claimed to accept and even welcome, but Google's actions have always supported the rhetoric. In action, Google has shown that it doesn't want to help those devices any more than it has to. This is part of the reason why the majority of Android development that happens at Google is not in the open source system layer anymore, but rather the Google Play services layer and the Google Apps that come through the Google Play Store. And, it's also the reason why Google has essentially created its own brand of Android with those services, and slowly replaced apps like the browser, calendar, email, and gallery with the Google equivalents: Chrome, Google Calendar, Gmail, and G+ Photos. It's hard to say what Google will do in regards to non-Google Android devices this year, but the past says Google won't help too much.

Platform numbers

The best place to understand the changes 2013 held for Android users is in the platform distribution numbers, because that tells the story of the user experience in the ecosystem. One year ago at the beginning of January 2013, Android 2.3 Gingerbread made up 45.6% of Android devices, Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich was second with 29%, Android 4.1/4.2 Jelly Bean took third with 13.6%, and Android 2.2 Froyo round out the versions worth mentioning at 8.1%. So, the number of users running the older Android 2.x versions of the system was a majority at 53.7%, and the proportion running the revamped Android 4.x versions made up just 42.6%. 

The past year since then has introduced two new incremental updates to the platform - Android 4.3 Jelly Bean and Android 4.4 KitKat - and, it has seen a massive shift in the platform distribution overall. Android 2.x has dropped to just 22.5% of the ecosystem, and Ice Cream Sandwich dropped as well to 16.9%, leaving Jelly Bean as the majority of the ecosystem at 59.1%. This alone is a major change for Android users for a number of reasons. Just look at the difference between the Android 2.3 reference device, the Nexus S, and the Android 4.2 reference device, the Nexus 4. 

This alone gives a good indication of the differences users have seen in the market. Android 2.x was a relatively ugly system, which is why manufacturers like Samsung and HTC felt the need to skin it in the first place. Devices running 2.x were generally smaller with bezel space relegated to capacitive buttons, and they obviously had lower specs overall. With Android 4.x, the average screen size for devices started creeping ever closer to 5-inches, bezels shrunk, buttons moved on-screen (on many devices that don't have the Samsung branding), and the average specs moved to quad-core processors and upwards of 2GB of RAM, not to mention 720p and 1080p displays. 

And, all of that just speaks to the hardware options available for users. The software differences from Android 2.x to 4.x are pretty stark as well. In the past year alone, the ecosystem shifted from using versions of Android where the platform was still growing and finding its way (2.x) to the Android that knows what it is and how to best control its own fate (4.x). Now, over 60% of the ecosystem (including KitKat users) have access to Google Now, the performance improvements of Project Butter, the data usage meter, actionable notifications, and the visual consistency of the Holo theme, Roboto font, action bars, and overflow menus. 

Form factors

That alone is a big change for users, but the shift to Android 4.1+ in the ecosystem doesn't just speak to changes in the smartphone world, but also to the explosion of Android tablets that we've seen over the past year. Android tablets took over the majority of shipment metrics in 2012, and have only widened the gap since then. IDC just put out the numbers for the holiday season although it didn't break down the numbers by platform, only by vendor. Even so, the numbers show Apple dropping from just over 38% of tablet shipments in Q4 2012 to just under 34% this past holiday season. Even if we generously assume Windows took 5% of tablets shipped, Android would be left with 61% of the market (53.2% if you take out Amazon's non-Google Androids). And, those numbers are expected to continue for a while, at least for Android. In the numbers that IDC gave for Q3 2013, it also predicted that by 2017 Android would be just below 60% of the tablet market (presumably that number includes Amazon), with iOS at about 30% and Windows climbing to about 10%. 

In the tablet market as well as the smartphone market, 2013 was a year of refinement for Android. The system itself is feature-complete at this point, which is an issue for both Google and Apple moving forward. Any features added to either Android or iOS at this point could still be quite impressive (see: Google Now), but in general the additions will be geared more towards pushing the platforms to new form factors than offering functionality that might be expected by the majority of users. At this point, whatever you want to do with a smartphone or tablet, you'll likely be able to with either Android or iOS, so the assumed expansion for the platforms is in wearables. 

Towards the end of the past year, we saw where that was heading with the introduction of the first generation of smartwatches as well as the Google Glass Explorer program. Wearables were certainly in their infancy in this past year, but there is obviously quite a lot more on the horizon because the current set of wearables are still in the process of figuring out what exactly a wearable should be. The main Android powered option that is actually available on the market, the Samsung Galaxy Gear, has taken the approach of "throw it all at the wall and see what sticks". This has led to some interesting functionality, but also quite a few drawbacks, including battery life; and, many agree that the overall experience isn't as good compared to other options like the Pebble smartwatch which has more limited functionality. 

The other major spot where you might have found Android in this past year was on your TV with Google TV, but there is really nothing at all to say on that front. During Google I/O back in May, Google made it sound like there was work being done which would bring Google TVs up to Android 4.x, but almost all of the devices are still based on the long forgotten Android 3.2 Honeycomb. There have been rumors of a Nexus TV and more attention to the form factor by Google, but all we've seen on that is the Chromecast, which is barely running Android at all. 

Even with all of the movement in pushing Android into various new products, there are still new and exciting things that have been happening in the world of component hardware. By far, the most exciting new entries for components over the past year has been with display technology. Although the Qualcomm Toq smartwatch is not the device that anyone is likely to buy, it was a great showcase for Mirasol displays, which are something we've been waiting on for years now. Mirasol uses transflective technology meaning that it both transmits light (like a normal display) and more importantly it reflects light, which leads to far better performance in direct sunlight. 

The other big addition to displays in 2013 was the introduction of flexible displays which came in the (beta) products: the Samsung Galaxy Round and the LG G Flex. Both devices were essentially glorified proof-of-concepts for flexible display technology, but they point to an interesting shift over the coming year. Regardless of if makers bother with actually curving the glass on your device, the important part is that the display underneath is flexible, which often means it is far more difficult to break. You can still crack the glass on top, but at least the display itself should continue to function. And, once curved/flexible glass options get more refined, and of course the internals of devices become flexible, we could eventually see a pretty big change in how our smartphones look, though we wouldn't expect to see that this year except maybe in prototype form (and certainly nothing as cool as the Nokia Humanform concept).

Google Play

As mentioned before, Android as a system is essentially feature-complete. Anyone looking for a smartphone who picks up a new Android handset likely won't be disappointed at what the platform has to offer. You get all of the Google services, most new devices offer Google Now and its extensive voice command, and you get the Google Play Store which now has over 1 million apps, not to mention movies, books, magazines, and music. But, that doesn't mean that Android didn't see growth in this segment this year. 

One major addition to the Play Store in 2013 came in the form of hardware. The Play Store had been selling Nexus devices, but in 2013 the store added a number of new Chromebooks (including the crazy expensive Pixel) as well as four new Google Play edition Android devices - the Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, Sony Xperia Z Ultra, and LG G Pad 8.3 (the Moto G was then added in early 2014). While those devices are sold at the normal unlocked phone prices, this gave Google Play an impressive array of devices ranging from 4.7-inches (HTC One) all the way to 10.1-inches (Nexus 10). The lineup has been so impressive that there have even been rumors that Google could ditch the Nexus lineup all-together and only offer Google Play edition devices, although rumors put that move in 2015. 

At the end of 2012, there was still the lingering claim that Android tablets were lacking when it came to apps, but over the course of 2013 that idea changed. 10-inch Android tablets may still have a relatively smaller collection of optimized apps than 7-inch Android tablets or the iPad; but, when there are over 1 million apps in the Google Play Store, you're still highly likely to find what you need. Also, Google has done a far better job of not only pushing developers to optimize, but in surfacing optimized apps. Google started by pushing developers to add screenshots for tablet optimized apps, and then more recently, it changed the way apps were displayed in the Play Store, so optimized apps showed first. Now, it is very hard to claim that Android tablets are missing too much.

The first big shift in a specific Google Play content came in May at Google I/O with the announcement of Google Play Music All Access. It wasn't the first all-you-can-eat music service to hit the market, but it added a few features that made it a very compelling option. First of all, it seamlessly merged your personal collection of music that had been uploaded to the cloud with the music saved to your library through the All Access subscription. This was important not only because it made for a better user experience, but it led to better lock-in for customers. Your music library may be impressive, but seeing a bunch of albums disappear if you cancel your subscription can be painful. Google also did well by implementing easy controls to modify a radio playlist, as well as real human curation of content with editor's picks.

The other big change came more recently. Google Play added Magazines along with TV & Movies back in the summer of 2012 with the introduction of the original Nexus 7, and just 16 months later Google Play Magazines was already gone. Well, not gone completely, but folded into a unified reading experience called Google Play Newsstand. Newsstand was widely seen as the mashup of Magazines and Google's mostly forgotten news aggregation app, Currents, though we saw it more as a reimagining of Google Reader. Newsstand brought together your magazine subscriptions, news subscriptions, and any RSS feed you might want to have pulled in as well. Even more important for content creators is that they were suddenly given space in the Google Play Store, which could make it easier for readers to discover new content. 

Most Google apps saw significant changes in 2013, but the biggest of all were in Google Maps and Google Wallet. Maps received a complete design overhaul, and then it got a bit smarter by pulling in accident reports from Google's acquisition of Waze. Google Wallet isn't used nearly as much as Maps, but its change this year was even bigger, because it essentially pivoted from an NFC payment system to a money exchange system similar to PayPal, and added compatibility with tons of new devices. Although, since Wallet isn't a core Android app, it doesn't have quite the same impact. 

2013 was also the year where we saw the real power of Google's new strategy of putting major feature updates into Google Play services rather than the Android core system, because Google can silently update Play services on all Google Android devices and bypass the entire manufacturer/carrier update quagmire. The main additions here were the Verify Apps system for detecting malware in sideloaded apps, which was first introduced in Android 4.2, but was pushed to all devices running Android 2.2 and higher; the Android Device Manager, which allowed for locating, ringing, locking, and remotely wiping a lost device; and, Google Play Games which has brought centralized leaderboards, achievements, multiplayer, and more to tons of Android games. 

Outside of the Google world of apps there were too many changes to count, but we can talk about the overall trends. In 2013 after years of seeing apps either being iOS exclusives or seeing long delays in Android versions, we started seeing more and more apps that were released simultaneously on both platforms, and even a couple that came to Android first. Unfortunately, this was more true with apps than games, as many of the best mobile games are still either iOS exclusives (Infinity Blade, Device 6, The Room 2, Oceanhorn, Year Walk), or hit iOS first with lengthy delays before the Android version (Cut the Rope 2),  or maybe no specific plans for Android and just the nebulous "it's coming" (The Wolf Among Us). Don't get us wrong, there are still tons of amazing games for Android, but the majority of the best Android games are titles also found on iOS, and usually found on iOS first. The same can't be said about the best games on iOS. 

Various unofficial metrics have shown over the past year that the Google Play Store's revenue has grown extremely fast over the past year; and, those numbers were recently confirmed in Google's Q4 2013 earnings call. Google credited Play Store content, app, and hardware sales for the company's revenue growth. More revenue in the Play Store is always great news for developers; so, we're hoping to see more developers changing the trend this year and bring more apps and games to Android in a more timely manner. 

Story timeline



1. ArtSim98

Posts: 3535; Member since: Dec 21, 2012

Michael! Your articles are so quality stuff!

11. akki20892

Posts: 3902; Member since: Feb 04, 2013

Android is one of the powerful mobile OS around the world.

33. jael206

Posts: 147; Member since: Jul 18, 2012

Is there an option to "follow" authors here in PA? Coz I will really be one of the first subscribers for Michael H.. All his articles are interesting reads. I wonder why he still hasn't shown himself in front of the camera though.. C'mon man, do a video of your enlightening articles!

35. networkdood

Posts: 6330; Member since: Mar 31, 2010

follow him on Google+

2. ihavenoname

Posts: 1693; Member since: Aug 18, 2013

Well written and unbiased article! Waiting for State of Platform: iOS.

3. alterecho

Posts: 1106; Member since: Feb 23, 2012

I'm waiting for WP. It will be a one line article (unless its a list of faults, in which case, it will be a 10 page article).

4. NokiaFTW

Posts: 2072; Member since: Oct 24, 2012

That will be a good thing for you since your phone won't lag while you read it.

6. ihavenoname

Posts: 1693; Member since: Aug 18, 2013

Yeah, with Android you can read numerous pages of articles without lag. Sorry that your phone can't...

7. WHoyton1

Posts: 1635; Member since: Feb 21, 2013

Fanboy alert!

18. papss unregistered

Again with directing the wrong person. You truly are thick minded

28. rodneyej1

Posts: 3576; Member since: Jul 06, 2013

The WP address should be interesting, especially with Nokia being involved the past few years... There's definitely been much more good than bad, and more progress than digress... Nevertheless, they are all fun to read!!!

5. ihavenoname

Posts: 1693; Member since: Aug 18, 2013

I'm not sure if 10 pages is enough... ;)

24. XperiaFanZone

Posts: 2279; Member since: Sep 21, 2012

It's actually too little for the "fault" of Android.

9. Liveitup

Posts: 1798; Member since: Jan 07, 2014

It seems a lot of people have a lot to say about nothing except for hating sake. I do hope when it comes to Windows Phone platform that Phonearena has the decency and fairness to talk about how Microsoft Windows Phones changed UI design language from Skeuomorphism to Flat design language which both iOS and Android has since adopted. Also how Windows Phone first introduced deep OS level integration within smartphoneswhen the competition was basically app centric. Far as I can see all OS lacks something that the other has, I can list features that both iOS and Android basically copied from WP. Far as im concerned WP redefined the modern smartphone in many ways, hope Phonearena will be like (60 minutes) TV show and be neutral when writing about my platform of choice.

12. NokiaFTW

Posts: 2072; Member since: Oct 24, 2012

Completely agree with you. These Android and iOS fanboys keep forgetting how they're OSes are copying the flat and tile bases UI of Windows Phone. +1

36. networkdood

Posts: 6330; Member since: Mar 31, 2010

wow, let me guess - you used to have an IlovemyIphone user name, right? Android's UI was out before Windows, sooooo.....once windows improves more, I will definitely consider buying a phone from Nokia.

39. kabhijeet.16

Posts: 892; Member since: Dec 05, 2012

Of course, coz rectangle was invented by MS and is a patent of WP..

26. rodneyej1

Posts: 3576; Member since: Jul 06, 2013

Very good.. I agree with a lot you said.. Giving credit where credit is due.. Good job.. It seems that we have some sensible, and mature people here on PA... Some...

10. akki20892

Posts: 3902; Member since: Feb 04, 2013

Lol dude. U r funny.

14. XperiaFanZone

Posts: 2279; Member since: Sep 21, 2012

Actually, Android has much more "faults" than ios and WP have. And this is a great article. Hope the same for the other two platforms.

42. livyatan

Posts: 867; Member since: Jun 19, 2013

Actually you have no idea what you are talking about. And why don't you change your name to LumiaFanZone or IphoneFanZone? I have a newsflash for you - Xperia means Sony with Android!

25. rodneyej1

Posts: 3576; Member since: Jul 06, 2013

You love WP...

8. Finalflash

Posts: 4063; Member since: Jul 23, 2013

Don't have to wait for an iOS one, I think they wrote one in 2010 that is still relevant. Unless you want to read about the new lipstick they put on their pig...and then called it a new pig...that's always an interesting story.

13. ihavenoname

Posts: 1693; Member since: Aug 18, 2013

That's your opinion. I (and propably many others) would love to see iOS one. After all it's second most popular mobile OS.

23. androiphone20

Posts: 1654; Member since: Jul 10, 2013

You're right, I think they should skip iOS and move on to WP. iOS has nothing to offer at this point I think I just threw my iphone out of the window, oops

27. rodneyej1

Posts: 3576; Member since: Jul 06, 2013

All three are interesting to read.. It's technology history as far as I'm concerned, and it shouldn't have anything to do with what platform you do, or don't, like.. It's all cool to read about...

15. PBXtech

Posts: 1032; Member since: Oct 21, 2013

With Google and Samsung just signing a big agreement, I'd love to see a split screen option that's common on Samsung's newer phones to become part of the stock Android coding.

17. rihel_95

Posts: 305; Member since: Mar 21, 2012

That Google and Samsung deal might be about multi window in Google experience Android (stock), not only to debloat samsung if we are lucky.

22. alrightihatepickingusernames

Posts: 474; Member since: Dec 29, 2013

I've wanted it for a while now as well, it just makes so much sense, the only reason that it hasn't been on stock Android is probably because Samsung has a patent for it.

16. twens

Posts: 1180; Member since: Feb 25, 2012

Hmmm, funny how features of touch wiz that people refer to as gimmick is so much desired to be implemented as a stock feature in Android. Touchwiz may stutter once in a while but it's time people just give Sammy some credit. It has the most features of any skin one can find on Android. Samsung phones feel like w8 on a mobile device simple because there is nothing a Samsung phone can not do.

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