What version of Android does your phone have? Are you interested in upgrading it? Can you even upgrade it? This a challenge faced, by likes of Samsung, Sony, HTC, and Huawei, every year. When these manufacturers release a gaggle of new smartphones and tablets, all running Google’s Android mobile operating system (OS), they’re under pressure to have the latest – but does it even matter?

If they’re lucky, they’ll have the latest version of Android running on the just-announced devices. But often they’re not, and that means the first questions that get asked about the new smartphones is when they’ll be updated to the newest version of Google’s mobile OS. A case in point would be Sony’s Xperia Z, announced at CES in January this year. That device, loaded with Android 4.1.2, went on sale internationally on the 9th of February. Two days later, on the 11th of February, Google announced Android 4.2.2.

Google's most recent numbers for Android fragmentation.
Google’s most recent numbers for Android fragmentation.

Frustrating, no doubt, for a company that’s just released its flagship device. Worse, still, it would now be hounded by people who insist on having the latest version of Android on their shiny new smartphone. For those, the wait ended on the 25th of June when 4.2.2 became available for the Xperia Z.

In cases where updates take long to reach market, or aren’t developed at all, it  leads to something called fragmentation. A mobile market consisting of platform fragments; many devices running different versions of Android. At the last count, only 4% of Android devices were on 4.2.x. Going backwards, 29% were on 4.1.x, and 25.6% on 4.0.x. The three-year-old Android 2.3.x still accounts for 36.5% of the market, while older versions fight for scraps – small portions, but users nonetheless.

The concerns are that it becomes difficult for application developers to develop their mobile apps to run across all versions of Android. Do they develop for only the latest version of the OS? Or do they make something that is compatible with all Android devices?

The incentive to have an app on as many phones as possible is huge, understandably. Mobile application development is a lucrative business model and the market is growing exponentially, year on year. With smartphones now outselling feature phones (aka dumbphones) developers have a growing audience for their wares – excluding 40% of users because their phones aren’t up-to-date would be suicide.

Except, it’s not. And it also turns out that it doesn’t matter which version of Android you have on your phone or tablet.

Local app developer, Toby Kurien, has worked on a number of Android applications and tells us that fragmentation is just a myth. Citing a number of his own studies, as well as an article on ComputerWorld, Toby explains that Google’s gone to great lengths to make developing for any Android device and version as easy as possible.

There are many devices from different manufacturers, which means different screen sizes and resolutions to cater for. But with a little bit of elbow grease app developers can take advantage of Google’s tools to create a responsive user interface. This means that a single application can scale well from small screens on entry-level devices all the way to big 10-inch tablets. There’s no need to create new art assets, or have separate versions for tablets and phones – the application can do all the hard work and respond to the change in screen size, depending on the device running it.

Kurien even suggests that Apple might have an issue with screen fragmentation on its hands, since it has 5 different resolutions to support (across the older iPhones, new Retina iPhones, the iPhone 5 with a larger display, the older iPads, and newer Retina iPads).

As for Android devices on different versions of the operating system, those are also catered for. Kurien says that it’s a little known fact Android is both backwards and forwards compatible. Should a developer create an application and compile it for Jelly Bean (4.2) devices it will still work as far back and Android 1.6, as long as it doesn’t use any of the 4.2-only features. Similarly, an app coded for 1.6 will work on a newer device.

At the most recent Google I/O gathering the company was expected to announce a new version of Android, but opted instead to introduce a new feature called Google Play Services – an app that’s part of the Google Play marketplace. Rather than handset manufacturers worrying about having a new version of Android to implement on their devices, Google Play Services levels the playing field: it’s a means for all apps to work on any phone that has the latest version of Google Play Services.

Divorcing the core functionality from an operating system update is a smart move. It means that people don’t need to be concerned about having the latest operating system on their device – especially in cases where phone manufacturers won’t release an updated version of Android for an older handset. Toby proudly admits that his daily phone is a Motorola Defy – a device that went on sale in 2010 – that’s loaded with a custom version of Android 2.3.7. Granted, there are still reasons to get the latest version of Android. Google Now, the company’s proactive notifications system, only works on the latest versions of the OS, and can’t be ported to older versions. But they’re hardly essential for apps to run properly.

Even the 3-year-old Defy can still do the job.
Even the 3-year-old Defy can still do the job.

With the need for a new version of Android removed, what’s left to drive the upgrade cycle? Simple: new hardware. Most apps on Google Play will still run on Android 2.3, but some of the newer applications – games, specifically – require hardware support that will only be found in newer phones. Faster processors, better graphics capabilities, accelerometers, and GPS receivers – just a few examples of newer hardware bits that applications can use to deliver a better experience.

So don’t fret about updating your operating system, and spend more time worrying about whether the hardware in hand will get the job done.

Eleven years ago Christo started writing about technology for one of South Africa's (then) leading computer magazines. His first review? A Samsung LCD monitor. Hey, it was hot news, back then. Nowadays he gets more excited about photography, cars, game consoles, and faster internet connections. He's sort of an Apple fan, but will take any opportunity to remind you about his Windows-powered home theatre PC and desire to own a vanilla Android tablet.   Currently uses: Apple 13-inch Macbook Pro with Retina Display, Apple iPhone 5, Microsoft Laser Mouse 6000, Audiofly AF78 Earphones, Xbox 360, Nikon D50.