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Here's The Huge Problem That's Bedeviling Google In Mobile

Owen Thomas

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Google has a huge challenge in mobile: Most Android users aren't using the latest version of its software.

That's hobbling its efforts to compete with Apple, since older versions of Android don't have the bells and whistles and performance improvements.

The Next Web noticed that Google recently updated statistics about its Android user base. While it's made some progress, the most recent version, Jelly Bean, only has a 10% share of usage. Ice Cream Sandwich, the next oldest version, has 29%. And Gingerbread, a two-year-old version, still dominates, running 48% of Android devices.

Those numbers have improved marginally since last month, when more than half of all Android devices ran Gingerbread. But they are not improving quickly enough to suggest the problem of slow adoption will go away anytime soon.

Gingerbread lacks many key features in Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean, like a fast Web browser and an appealing, consistent user interface. And that may be the best explanation for why Android lags behind Apple's iOS in most metrics of mobile usage, despite having a market-share lead: They are using less-capable devices which frustrate them when they try to buy things, read articles, or watch videos.

Google must surely be aware of this, which likely forms part of the reasoning behind the creation of a dedicated team for apps that run on Apple's iPhones and iPads. It is far less important, after all, that people use Google's free mobile operating system than that they run Web searches on Google, get directions on Google Maps, and watch videos on YouTube.

But in the long term, Google's better off if it doesn't have to work through Apple to get its apps out in the marketplace.

The biggest obstacle to upgrading the Android user base are Google's own partners—the wireless carriers and handset makers who have allied with it. They are understandably hesitant to roll out new software before thoroughly testing it on their networks.  But sometimes they seem needlessly slow in pushing out upgrades.

Which is why Google is slowly taking more control of its hardware, through its Nexus brand of devices commissioned by Google from hardware partners and its acquisition of Motorola Mobility. (Ironically, Motorola was one of the Android manufacturers most infamous for its slow updates.)

Meanwhile, you can still find lots of Ice Cream Sandwich smartphones and tablets for sale.

What can Google do? Besides cajole partners into approving updates faster and making more of its own latest-and-greatest devices, not much.

And when the long-rumored Key Lime Pie upgrade finally comes out, this cake will get another layer.



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