Google's "open" mobile OS Android has always paid a high price for its high market penetration, mainly fragmentation. Dispersed across many handsets and OEMs of varying capabilities, Android presents to developers a range of target hardware and software capabilities that can drive up costs and time to market and only complicate design decisions.
For instance, in its latest survey of devices embracing the last two weeks (ending Jan. 3, 2013), Google finds that only about 10% of Android owners are running the latest version of the OS (4.1/4.2 or “Jelly Bean"), while less than a third have even updated to the next most recent version, "Ice Cream Sandwich" (4.0) and almost half (47.4%) are still using the 2.33 version, "Gingerbread." In contrast, most independent measures were showing an adoption of over 60% of iOS 6 within a month of its introduction.
Developers have been challenged by Android’s open nature from the beginning, because every carrier and handset manufacturer is capable of tweaking aspects of the OS at will. In addition, the distribution of OS updates to all of the available hardware is contingent on such a wide range of sources. Nevertheless, Android developers do have a large target in aiming for handsets that run the Gingerbread platform and later, which is now on over 80% of Android handsets, since every iteration of the OS is backward compatible.
Mobile developers have dealt with worse fragmentation issues in the pre-smartphone era, of course. In the days of Java and BREW feature phones of many screen sizes and OS variations, the cost of "porting" a downloadable app across hundreds of incompatible handsets often exceeded the basic development costs of the project. On the other hand, developers often credit Google with having crafted good tools for managing the fragmentation issue and minimizing the effects of different OS versions and screen sizes on an app’s behavior under different conditions.
For Android, however, the problem comes in promoting a platform’s most advanced features when only a fraction of phones in the ecosystem support it. The situation tends to keep the focus on the hardware maker and the specific capabilities of a handset, rather than the interoperability of features across the platform.
And of course, what ordinary consumer even knows what Google’s sweet shop of OS versions references at all? The preoccupation with "Gingerbread" and "Ice Cream" among the gadget blog is entirely irrelevant to the vast majority of smartphone owners who see two Samsungs tap to transfer mom's (or Mrs. Santa's) randy video to dad in the TV ad and wonder why their "Android" phone doesn’t do that. It is Android, isn’t it?