2011 in Android: A Retrospective

A lot has happened with Android this year: we’ve gone from Gingerbread to Ice Cream Sandwich (via Honeycomb); the Market’s had two big upgrades; Flash Player has been dropped; mobile games have really taken off; and more. On the other hand, Siri put Android Voice Actions to shame; Google withheld Android’s source; and lawsuits have been flung back and forth.

Read on for our overview of everything that happened in 2011!

Gingerbread

At the start of the year, the current version of Android was 2.3 Gingerbread, having been released with Google’s latest “official” phone, the Samsung Nexus S, in mid-December of 2010. As usual, though, this didn’t mean that every Android user had Gingerbread on their phone immediately; it took months for the various handset manufacturers and carriers to push out their over-the-air updates (which gave us the opportunity to do a silly April Fool’s joke).

Fin.

Gingerbread on your Android. Get it?

The development of CyanogenMod 7 helped tremendously; this Gingerbread-based ROM was released for a few devices as early as February, and by the stable public release in April had added support for 30 devices. As well as offering Gingerbread’s new features and updated interface to almost any Android user whose handset didn’t yet offer an official upgrade, CM7 offers its own additions, including incognito browsing, lockscreen gestures, and themes; take a look at Rita El Khoury’s 10 Reasons You Should Try CyanogenMod 7 for more details.

Lockscreen Gestures

CM7's Lock screen gestures

Traditionally, the manufacturers have not tried to make it easy to install new ROMs like CyanogenMod, but in late May HTC made an announcement that would change this: they would allow the bootloaders of their devices to be unlocked. Of course, this came with some caveats (“this may invalidate your warranty”, and so on) but overall it was great news for those who choose Android because of the freedom and customisability granted by rooting and using custom ROMs. The HTCdev website provides an unlock tool for all HTC devices released after September 2011 (and a few from before then).

HTC Facebook Announcement

The announcement by HTC on their Facebook page

Other Google App Updates

The Android OS itself wasn’t the only Google product to receive a facelift and some new features. Google Goggles’s 1.6 update integrated with Android’s camera, so users could let it automatically search for results based on any (and every) picture they took. That may not sound like a big deal, but it was part of a larger trend of cross-product integration within Android and Google itself.

A Google Goggles update appearing in the notifications tray.

Continuining the trend, Google Checkout merged with Google Wallet, a new app that used Gingerbread’s Near Field Communications ability to allow owners of new Android handsets to use them in place of physical credit cards to pay for goods at any contactless pay point.

The Android Market had two big changes this year. First was the launch of the browser-based Android Market, which is perhaps my personal choice for the biggest addition of the year – it’s hard to believe that when this site launched, we had to use QR codes for you to scan with your phone, just to provide you with a link to any apps we reviewed. Now you don’t even have to have your phone at hand to buy an app and download it to your device: a massive improvement.

Left: The Market's web interface. Right: That app downloading on Android.

More recently, the Market’s app started sporting a new tile-based design, reminiscent of Windows Phone 7′s Metro interface. Both the web and the Android versions provided movies and books to purchase (the latter coming from Google eBooks – another example of cross-Google integration). This directly competes with iTunes’ movie downloads and Apple iBooks, but that’s not the only company that was finding itself crossing paths with Google…

Amazon

Amazon had been selling digital goods for a long time, and seems to be the clear winner – at least regarding ebooks. Google eBooks cannot be read natively on Amazon’s popular e-Ink Kindles, despite supporting many other devices, and the service in general received criticism and overall poor reviews.

Meanwhile, Amazon launched a new branch of its site, the Amazon Appstore, as an alternative to the Android Market. Besides having the interface, search filters, and starred reviews that one would expect from Amazon, the Appstore had one big incentive over the native Market: their Free App of the Day promotion, where every day a different paid app would be offered to download for free.

The Amazon Appstore front page

However, this offer was not as generous as it seemed; Pocket Casts’ creators ShiftyJelly shared their poor experience with this promotion, calling the Appstore “rotten to the core”, and shedding light on other problems with the service for developers, of which end-users would previously have been unaware.

With all the overlap, perhaps it was inevitable that Amazon would release an Android device of their own (indeed, perhaps it was their plan from the start). The Kindle Fire was launched in November, at a low price of $199 and running a heavily-modified version of Gingerbread. Out of the box, the Fire does not support the Android Market, but naturally does support Amazon’s own complementary services: the Appstore, ebooks, and digital movie downloads.

The Kindle Fire

It also supports Amazon Cloud Player, a cloud-based music storage and streaming service that ties in with Amazon’s MP3 store. Perhaps surprisingly, Amazon released this before Apple – not exactly a stranger to digital music and portable MP3 players – released their own streaming music system, iCloud. Google’s complement, Google Music, was released this year, too.

Purchasing music on the Android Market

The Kindle Fire was certainly big news regarding Android tablets, but it was not the biggest.

Honeycomb

In February, alongside the browser-based Market, Google revealed the latest version of Android: version 3.0, Honeycomb.

The Honeycomb home screen

The Honeycomb home screen

All previous versions of Android had been designed specifically for handsets and mobile phones, but when the iPad was such a huge success, handset manufacturers wanted to grab a piece of the tablet market. Since Android is an open source operating system, anyone can use it on any device, without needing permission from Google. So, naturally, companies began selling 7″ and 10″ touchscreen devices running Android 2.2 or 2.3, offering few changes to the operating system even though it was designed for an entirely different class of device.

Not surprisingly, most of these tablets could not hold a candle to the iPad: as well as the ill-fitting operating system, many had poor build quality in the hardware itself, since they were developed by manufacturers trying to cash in on a new trend at the lower end of the spending spectrum. Although some tablets were decent, and many users were happy with theirs, overall this reflected poorly on Android, and most were an embarrassment to the OS.

Look at the icons in this promo photo: all spread out!

To help counter this, Google released Honeycomb, designed specifically for tablets – and did not release the source code to the public. In retrospect, I believe this was the right choice; if the source code had been open, we would have seen plenty of phone manufacturers advertising their handsets as running “the latest version of Android, 3.0″, even though, again, the OS would not have fit the form factor. At the time, however, this did hurt the image of Android as an open platform.

Honeycomb was a vast improvement over Froyo and Gingerbread as a tablet OS, but did not become an instant hit.

New Hardware

A tablet version of Android of course lead to new tablets, with the Samsung Galaxy Tab becoming the de facto device (after the cool but overpriced Motorola Xoom).

Manufacturers experimented with hybrid devices, too; the Motorola Atrix handset was notable for being able to dock into a keyboard and monitor, or the empty shell of a laptop, essentially becoming a portable desktop computer. ASUS released the Eee Pad Transformer (and, at the end of the year, the Transformer Prime): a Honeycomb tablet that could dock with a keyboard to double as a netbook.

The Atrix's 'Lapdock'

(This means that, within this year, Google effectively powered two new classes of notebook, as the Google Chromebook, running Chrome OS, was released in June.)

HP released a tablet, too… and discontinued it less then two months later, holding multiple fire sales in which the device was sold for just $99. Though the HP TouchPad ran webOS out of the box, the community has been working hard to get Android on there; currently, an alpha version of CM7.1 is supported.

The short-lived HP TouchPad

Android phones continued to evolve, with front-facing cameras, NFC and 4G being added to the newer devices, and screen sizes becoming larger and larger – the Nexus S had a 4.0″ screen; its successor, the Galaxy Nexus, has a 4.65″ screen. The sheer frequency of new handset releases was a little too much for some people, though!

As well as new features and cosmetic changes, the underlying power of Android devices has grown a lot over the past twelve months: processors are more powerful, GPUs are now common, and the NVIDIA Tegra was released. And as in most tech markets, there’s one class of app that has particularly benefited from these developments.

Games

This month, GTA3 was released for Android. Not just Android tablets, but Android handsets. That’s an open world, sandbox, 3D, last-gen console quality game in your pocket – incredible.

We’ve seen a lot of other games make the jump to the small screen this year (although GTA is certainly the most ambitious): indie favourite World of Goo from 2009, Sega’s excellent Sonic CD from 1993, and British classic Dizzy: Prince of the Yolkfolk from 1991. Some have been more successful than others; while World of Goo was very well received, the nostalgia factor and redrawn graphics couldn’t make up for Dizzy’s poor touchscreen controls.

Worms, on the other hand, was awesome.

OnLive approached mobile ports from a different direction: rather than downloadable games that have been re-written to run on Android, they provide a single app that acts as a window to another copy of the game running on a remote computer across the Internet. Every input you make on your Android is passed on to the computer, which passes it on to the game and streams the contents of the stream back to your device. Remarkably, this actually works quite well.

OnLive showing Darksiders' title screen, with controls.

Popular iOS games also found their way onto Android, to a collective cheer of “what took you so long?” Cut the Rope and Fruit Ninja are two notable examples, but the standout is Angry Birds, which was actually used as part of the initial promotion for the Amazon Appstore: the Android Market only offers a free, ad-supported version of the game, while Amazon lets you buy an ad-free edition for 99c.

Patents and the Competition

So, Android – already strong for its own reasons – has been reaching parity with other companies (most notably Apple) in areas where it had previously been weak: games, digital goods, tablets, and so on. Unfortunately, it flew a little too close to the sun and incurred the wrath of the dreaded legal departments.

I don’t want to delve too much into this here, so please check out our articles on the patent wars for more information. But, essentially, Apple has been filing a lot of law suits against Android manufacturers lately, Microsoft has joined in, and it’s all gotten a little ugly and claustrophobic.

It’s not fair to simplify this to “Apple sues rather than innovating”; some of their claims have been fair (for example, the claims they made against Samsung’s Galaxy Tab seem ridiculous when considered individually, but when taken as a whole, Samsung looks less than innocent).

On the other hand, it’s clear that Apple doesn’t invent its products in a vacuum:

Still, despite all this, Android has been steadily growing throughout the year: take a look at the stats from April and December. Over Christmas alone, over 3.7 million Android devices were activated. It’s not exactly an underdog.

Siri

Speaking of the competition, we can’t ignore Apple’s big mobile releases of the year: iOS 5 and the iPhone 4S.

From a purely technical stat-by-stat comparison (although I realise this doesn’t entirely represent the situation), there’s not a huge amount that Apple offers that Android doesn’t: as the video above shows, most new iOS 5 features are already present in Android, and there are plenty of phones that offer similar specs to the iPhone 4S (better, in certain cases). However, there’s one big new feature that far outclasses Android’s equivalents: Siri.

Google’s no stranger to voice recognition; from 2007 to 2010 they ran a free directory services phoneline, GOOG-411, which gathered and analysed information about users’ speech patterns to use in other voice-recognition apps. And in 2010, they released Android Voice Actions, which allows users to send texts, search the web, call contacts and more, all through speech:

But Siri is a huge step up from Google’s offerings. It’s curious – not just because Google has the research and the experience to develop this kind of app, but because Siri demonstrates a sense of humour that would otherwise have been considered characteristically Google-y.

Plenty of developers have tried to come up with an Android app to compete with Siri (Iris and Jeannie, and Vlingo), but none beat Siri at its game – though, to be fair, Siri is still new, and although Vlingo has been around for longer it is not trying to compete directly.

Another Blow to Android’s Marketing

So, Siri is a killer app for iOS that really differentiates it from Android. Of course, Android has plenty of strengths of its own, but this year it lost one feature that device manufacturers had been particularly vocal about: Flash support.

At the 2010 Google I/O conference, Vic Gundotra noted, “it turns out that, on the Internet, people use Flash” – this just a few weeks after Steve Jobs’ Thoughts on Flash. Plenty of adverts for Android handsets and tablets play up having “the full web experience” because, unlike iOS, Android devices support Flash Player in the browser.

Or at least, they did.

In November, Adobe announced that they would no longer be developing Flash Player for Android (or any mobile devices). You can argue over whether or not this is a big loss for the mobile web, but one thing’s for sure: this is one less bullet point in Android’s column in any mobile OS comparison list.

Social Networks

In late 2010, iPhone photo sharing app Instagram was launched, and became a social network in its own right, despite – or perhaps because of – its simplicity. Android doesn’t really have its own equivalent yet, though Snapr is a great app in itself (and Instagram itself is expected to hit the platform in early 2012).

But what about the Big Three social networks?

Twitter’s mobile app went through two big redesigns: one in February, and one in December (which seemed to split opinion). Honestly, I don’t think there’s much worth remarking on; in each case they redesigned the app to try to improve the interface and make it match their overall brand. Nothing revolutionary – though that’s not a bad thing.

Twitter's December update (left) and February update (right).

What is remarkable about Twitter is the number of excellent alternative apps available: back in March, Twitter’s platform product manager Ryan Sarver essentially told developers to stop developing basic third-party clients for the platform.

With Facebook, on the other hand, the official app seems to be far more popular than any alternatives. And yet, it is rather frustrating to use, with basic interactions like taps often not registering correctly. But Facebook did something interesting with their app’s development: they created a single HTML-based version to run on all mobile platforms.

The iPhone and Android apps essentially run off the same code, apart from each having their own “wrapper” that acts like a browser to render the HTML. (It’s a little more complicated than that, sure; check out this article for more details). This allows Facebook to make frequent, rapid changes to the app and roll them out to all devices at once… but also explains why the app feels sub-optimal on every device.

I mentioned a “Big Three” set of social networks; the third, of course, is MySpace. No, just kidding. I’m talking about Google+.

Google+

Google launched their own social network as an invitation-only service in June, and fully opened the doors in September. Months later, the average man on the street (and CNET reporter) will probably tell you that it’s not doing so well, or even that it’s a “massive fail”. I disagree, partly because I get a lot of use and enjoyment out of it already (I’m lucky that lots of people I find interesting happen to use G+), but mainly because they’re not looking at it in the right context.

Google+ is not trying to replace Facebook. And unlike Buzz, Wave, Orkut, Chrome OS, and even Gmail, Google+ is not a side project or an experiment, something else for Google to throw against the wall and see if it sticks; Google+ is Google.

If you’ve installed the app, you’ll already have seen examples of this. Photos you take are automatically uploaded to your account, ready to be shared later. If you’re listening to a track on Google Music, you can share it with your Circles and they’ll be able to listen to it once for free. And the browser-based Market shows you whether any contacts have +1′d a given app.

The Google+ App

All of these are yet more instances of cross-Google integration. And there’s even more of this in Android 4.0.

Ice Cream Sandwich

The latest version of Android was released on the newest “official” Android phone, the Galaxy Nexus, in November. (Cyanogen is already working on a CM9 ROM based on it.) Google+ is baked right in to the OS; you can add people to your Circles right from the Contacts app.

Add a Contact to Your Google+ Circles

ICS introduces plenty of new features: voice typing, panoramic cameras, and data usage controls. The overall interface has changed, too, with an emphasis on gestures and swipes, and a new lock screen that allows direct access to notifications and the camera app.

The ICS Recent Apps List

It also feels like Ice Cream Sandwich is making up for the fragmented Honeycomb release. The source code for both Honeycomb and Ice Cream Sandwich has been released, reaffirming Android’s status as an open-source operating system, and Ice Cream Sandwich is equally suited to tablets and handsets.

For more info on Ice Cream Sandwich and the Galaxy Nexus, check out my recent article.

What Else?

I haven’t even touched on Android watches, Android lightbulbs, or Android cars. Nor have I talked about the Android Open Accessory Developer Kit, which allows manufacturers to create external hardware that can control – and be controlled by – Android devices.

I think it suffices to say that a lot has happened in the world of Android this year. So much has changed in the past twelve months that I don’t know how to even guess at what might change by the end of 2012 – Android’s become a much more mature platform, and there are far fewer obvious cracks that need to be paved over (like the lack of a desktop app market and a decent tablet OS).

We’ll probably see big advances in tablets, as manufacturers try harder and harder to unseat the iPad (and soon, the iPad 3), and in Google+, as Google tries to build up its all-important platform. And, naturally, hardware features that seem premium today will become more and more common: high-megapixel cameras, NFC, 4G, and barometers (for faster geo-detection).

I’d like to say that the patent wars will draw to a close, but it seems unlikely; Apple in particular seem to be getting more and more aggressive with their lawsuits. Nor do I expect to see a Siri-killer: any remotely similar Android app will just be seen as a rip-off.

But one thing I’d put money on is Android getting more respect as a platform. In the past, the mobiles were seen as a poor man’s iPhone, the alternative for those who couldn’t afford a shiny white device with a picture of an Apple on it. We saw the same thing this year with the poor-quality Android tablets, providing another blow to the OS’s reputation. However, now the market leader is starting to take design ideas from Android’s book, and is not managing to completely outstrip Android even with its flagship updates. Amazon is using Android in the latest addition to their incredibly popular Kindle line. Most important, the statistics show that more and more people have Android phones, and not just the low-end budget models.

2012 will give Android, the manufacturers, and the app developers enough breathing room to truly innovate, rather than having to catch up. And that can only be a good thing.


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