Android Lollipop Nears 10 Percent Market Penetration After Half a Year in the Wild

The slow pace of updates to bring users to the latest and greatest version of Google Inc.’s (GOOG) Android — the world’s most used mobile operating system — is a well documented and much discussed problem.  The slower adoption cycle ultimately stems from the fact that Google does not push new versions of Android directly to customers, but rather waits for device OEMs and carriers to take up its generalized update packages and roll them out to end users.

Lollipop (Android 5.0 and 5.1) is no exception.

Soft launched in October, upgrade deliverables were available to OEMs and carriers since November.  That makes the OS technically half a year (six months) old.  Yet, as Neowin notes, Google’s own version tracker for developers pegs Lollipop adoption at only 9.7 percent.

Roughly two in five (39.8 percent) of the more than 1 billion Android device users are on devices powered by some version of Android KitKat (4.4).  KitKat remains the most widely adopted distribution.  Perhaps more notable, while less than 1 in 10 Androids run Lollipop, roughly 1 in 3 (33.7 percent) run some build of Android Jelly Bean builds (4.1 or 4.2).  Android Jelly Bean 4.2 was released two and a half years ago, so it’s somewhat surprising to see how long it’s lingering.

On the other hand Android Froyo (2.2) (0.3 percent), Gingerbread (2.3) (5.7 percent), and Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0) (5.3 percent) — once widely used builds — appear to be fading fast (well, fast by Android standards).

So why do less than 1 in 10 Android devices have Lollipop?  

One answer lies in the fact that while most major OEMs have launched upgrade efforts over the past six months, those efforts have mostly focused on certain high end models.  There are exceptions, for certain, but generally the focus has been on recent flagship smartphones and phablets for each particular OEM.  The problem is that those only represent a fraction of the overall product stream.

Further, even in cases where upgrades are targeting a specific device (such as the Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KRX:005930) (KRX:005935) Galaxy S5), it’s taken some time for those efforts to fully roll out in all sales regions.

While the Android model has received wide criticism for these slow updates, there also are some less discussed advantages.  First, the mobile market’s “big two” — Google and Apple, Inc. (AAPL) — have both suffered embarassing bugs at launch of a new OS build.  These bugs can not only mar the experience, but also in some cases lead to security risks.

Anyone who watched a friend or family member suffer through the iOS 6 update and its broken Apple Maps service (pictured) knows there is an underdiscussed downside to rapid updates.
Thus while the legitimate risk of having so many users on aging OS builds is widely discussed in the Android vs iOS debate, it should also be noted that at times the more deliberate approach gives Google time to fix serious security flaws before its latest builds are widely adopted.

Indeed, Lollipop had a number of bugs including some security flaws and memory leak issues in its early forms.  Within week of an iOS update nearly 50 percent of devices are running the new OS (as Apple directly pushes the update to customers).  Even with its limited set of hardware, at times, that fast pace of updates had temporarily endangered a very large group of users when security flaws have been found.

The challenge facing Google is both the size of its user base and the user base’s heterogeneity.  It wants to get OS software to end users faster.  But given the plethora of hardware and OEM-installed firmware modification/software, any release of Android is by pure statistics almost certain to see more bugs or peformance issues than Apple’s user base.  Were Google to adopt Apple’s model it would almost certainly end in disaster unless it got very creative or found out some way to better wrangle OEMs to avoid such problems.

It’s worth noting that even Apple — famous for its great update rates — has suffered some serious slowdown in adoption pace in recent years, as its userbase and the number of legacy devices in active use have grown.  That suggests that while Android’s issues may be in part due to its indirect delivery strategy, they may also be in part inescapable for such a large mobile userbase.  The old adage “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” may apply to some extent.

And while the heterogeneity is still a confounding factor for Android updates, Google is getting creative to work around that.  To that end a major change that rolled down in Lollipop is that now Google’s core apps and services will update independently of the OS upgrades.  How this will work in practice remains to be seen somewhat, but presumably non-updated Lollipop devices should still have similar feature upgrades in their core apps as those devices carrying whatever OS version comes after Lollipop.

In that regard Google has essentially opted to directly deliver the one part of the Android experience it does have near complete control over — the core apps.  It’s a clever strategy, but it needs to get its users onto Lollipop in order to execute it.  And after 6 months, it only has roughly 1 in 10 customers positioned to receive the benefits of its new out-of-stream updates model.