Google engineers: We're trying to fix Android fragmentation

During a Google I/O fireside chat, a team of Google Android engineers acknowledged continuing fragmentation issues with Android's software. Also: might Android get dramatically different camera abilities?

Eleven of Google's key members of its Android mobile operating system team took questions from developers at the 2013 Google I/O conference in San Francisco. CNET/Stephen Shankland

SAN FRANCISCO -- Engineers on the Google Android team say they are still working hard to ensure that Android updates are rolled out to new devices in a timely fashion.

During a fireside chat at the Google I/O developer conference here Thursday, 11 members of the Android development team fielded questions from the audience of developers. Android team members acknowledged the continuing issue of fragmentation within the Android ecosystem. But they also said they planned to continue a rapid pace of innovation.

"This is something we think about a lot," said Dave Burke, engineering director for the Android platform. "And we're working internally to streamline the development process and make the software more layered."

Fragmentation has been a major problem for Google Android almost since the beginning as the company quickly rolled out one software release after another. Device makers and the wireless operators that sell smartphones and tablets to consumers haven't been able to keep up. This means it can take several months for some devices to get new updates, and others don't get new software refreshes at all.

As result, there are millions of devices still running Android 2.2 Froyo and 2.3 Gingerbread. Google initially introduced those versions in May and December 2010, and Google has significantly altered Android programming interfaces since then.

Burke said that by layering software, chipmakers and device makers will be able to make updates and tweak different areas of the software more quickly, speeding up device updates. He also said that the company is trying to better understand the many variations of hardware using Android.

For instance, he said that the reason many Android devices in emerging markets use older versions of Gingerbread is because of the hardware limitations such as memory. Android itself doesn't require more, but applications are getting richer and do, he said. As a result, many apps developed for the newest version of Android can't run on old devices.

"We're trying to make Android more efficient so that even entry-level smartphones can use the software," he said.

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Matias Duarte, Google's director of the Android user experience, also pointed to the fact that Google and Samsung will offer the new Galaxy S4 with the "pure" Android experience. In other words, this particular phone doesn't have any of the Samsung TouchWiz software on top of Android, which might have to be modified when new releases of Android come out.

"Updates are a complex problem for the OEMs [that is, device makers]," Duarte said. "The Samsung Galaxy S4 will have the Nexus experience, and it will have more timely updates."

Android development not slowing down
But the engineers also noted that they have no plans to slow the innovation cycle of Android.

"Android is still a baby," Burke said. "There is so much more we can do. And there is also so much more that can be done at the hardware level too. There's lots more innovation that can come."

Dave Burke, engineering director of Android at Google, answers questions from developers at the 2013 Google I/O conference. CNET/Stephen Shankland

Specifically, he said that he sees many new things that can be done with cameras on phones.

"The camera on a phone tries to emulate a digital camera, which tries to emulate an old analog Kodak camera," Burke said. ""The camera is an area where we can do more evolution."

Another possibility is shifting some processing work from the main processor to the graphics chip, which can be more efficient. This approach is increasingly common with PC programming.

Getting rid of 'jank'
The engineers also acknowledged they are still working to refine Android to fix certain issues. Android is still too often "janky," meaning that changes on the screen stutter or pause instead of moving smoothly. To help fix that, Google said it's continuing work on Project Butter, an effort that arrived in Android 4.0 that designed to make the user interface work more smoothly.

"We made a lot of progress in Jelly Bean, but we have a lot more to do," Burke said. He said developers need to test on lower-end phones, not just powerful ones. "With a Nexus 4, you're spoiled by the power of GPU. You need to test on mulitple levels of devices."

iOS apps on Android? Not likely
One of the main issues that still dogs Android, despite the fact that it's the most widely used mobile operating system in the world, is that some apps are still developed only for Apple iOS. And this can prevent Android from attracting some users who may be interested in switching platforms.

One audience member, trying to bring Android into hospitals but finding lots of iOS-only apps, asked if Google would write an iOS emulator -- software that would let people run iOS apps on Android.

Google rained on the iOS emulation parade, though.

"It seems like a lot of work for a suboptimal experience," said Ficus Kirkpatrick, an engineer on the Android team. "I don't think that's very interesting."

Burke was a bit snarkier. "I was thinking we should go to Cupertino [where Apple's headquarters are located] and ask them to start emulating Android," he said.

New programming tools
Google announced at Google I/O that it's begun supporting JetBrains' IntelliJ developer tools for writing Android software, but that worried one programmer who uses the first developer tools for Android, Eclipse.

But Xavier Ducrochet, who works on developer tools for Android, tried to ease his worries.

"It's not a new direction. It's a parallel direction," Ducrochet said of the IntelliJ option. "You can keep using Eclipse."

"It's Android, not Ordroid," quipped Adam Powell, another member of the Android team.

 

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