10
Feb
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Every so often, something shows up in the Android Police tip box that seems just a little too wild to be true. Such was the case with the information that led us to publish this story. After all, if someone simply claimed that Google was forcing device OEMs to use up-to-date software in order to get access to Google Mobile Services, you'd probably find such an allegation dubious at best. Even if they included moderately convincing evidence that this was the case.

And that's why, for the last 2 weeks, we sat on this piece, waiting and wondering if we could get more sources to confirm its legitimacy. Today, we feel confident in asserting that - while there is still some small possibility our evidence may not be authentic - Google will be forcing manufacturers to run a specified API level (and the corresponding OS version) or above if they want their hardware to ship with Google Mobile Services, aka Google Apps.

Specifically, we're citing the transcribed table below, included in a communication to at least one major Android OEM partner from the Android team.

API Version GMS approval window open (AOSP release date) GMS approval window close
Gingerbread 6-Dec-2010 1-Feb-2014
Honeycomb 24-Feb-2011 1-Feb-2014
Ice Cream Sandwich 16-Dec-2011 1-Feb-2014
4.1 (API level 16) 12-Jul-2012 1-Feb-2014
4.2 (API level 17) 13-Nov-2012 24-Apr-2014
4.3 (API level 18) 25-July-2013 31-Jul-2014
4.4 (API level 19) 31-Oct-2013 TBA with API level 20 release

Yes, you're reading that correctly - the window to certify any device running Android 4.1 or below with Google Mobile Services expired at the beginning of this month. That means manufacturers will no longer be able to submit devices for GMS approval to Google unless they run Android 4.2 or above. By April 24th, that number changes to 4.3 or above. On July 31st, 4.4 or above. And at an as-yet unspecified date, OEMs will need to ship with the API level of the OS likely to be announced at Google I/O later this year.

Of course, without context, this table isn't giving you the whole picture. Here's how the Android team actually explains it in the alleged memo.

Starting February 2014, Google will no longer approve GMS distribution on new Android products that ship older platform releases. Each platform release will have a “GMS approval window” that typically closes nine months after the next Android platform release is publicly available. (In other words, we all have nine months to get new products on the latest platform after its public release.)

The wording in this statement is important - "each platform release will have a 'GMS approval window'" - this implies that the window did not formally exist, at least in writing, prior to this announcement. The 9 month window Google is giving manufacturers before deprecating older releases also changes things. From later this year on out, it means no OEM can certify a device more than two versions behind the current Android release. Google typically releases two Android versions resulting in an API level increase per year, roughly 6 months apart, so that does mean there will be a small 3 month window where devices 2 versions behind the currently announced version could be certified. That is, unless Google plans to slow the release cycle of Android OS / API level updates.

For example (this is just a hypothetical, don't confuse this with the exact dates on the actual table), this would mean that when API level 20 is announced, OEMs would have around 3 months to certify any more API level 18 (Android 4.3) devices before API level 19 (Android 4.4) becomes the mandatory minimum. Roughly 9 months after that, API level 20 would then become the mandatory minimum.

Also, to be clear, these dates are about the GMS approval process, not hardware release dates. As a hypothetical, a device that receives GMS certification on API level 17 (Android 4.2) on April 23rd this year, a day before the window closes, might not even be released until September or October. That doesn't mean Google will strip it of its GMS certification. Once a device is GMS-certified, the certification won't be revoked simply because the window for that OS version has closed. Again, I'm just trying to make this crystal clear so that everyone understands this policy is not a way for Google to force OEMs to update devices. This is only about the GMS certification process, nothing else. Google says as much in the document:

Google will still approve new builds of an existing product that has been already approved in partner.android.com. This allows partners to provide updated security patches and critical bug fixes to Android users on previously shipped devices.

One interesting side-effect here could be to chipmakers still shipping chipsets missing support for certain Android OS versions. If a particular MediaTek chip doesn't contain support for Android 4.4 (API level 19), that means no OEM can certify a device with that chipset once the GMS approval window closes for Android 4.3. That is, if they want support for Google Apps on their device.

Finally, the Android team makes a quick comment about helping its OEM partners by providing early access to releases via the PDK (Platform Development Kit) and continued optimization for low-memory devices.

As far as the big picture is concerned, this just looks to be Google clamping down on the UX problems at the low end of the Android device market. After all, it's quite rare to see OEMs like HTC, LG, or Samsung even ship a device more than 2 versions behind the current Android release. More likely, this policy is about smaller manufacturers dumping Ice Cream Sandwich phones and tablets onto unsuspecting consumers well over 2 years after the OS was announced because they're too lazy / cheap to develop updated software. This may also encourage such manufacturers to avoid overly involved OS modifications and opt for a more stock-ish Android experience, as the amount of time and money spent on firmware development increases as a result of this new policy. The fact that Google specifically speaks to low-memory device optimization definitely does seem to point the finger at the cheaper end of the market, too.

What will this mean for you as a consumer, assuming it's true? Probably not a lot. This new policy shouldn't affect OTA updates, and as I said previously, larger manufacturers like Samsung and LG are probably already well-within compliance. Regardless, it's interesting stuff, and everything we've learned to date has us pretty confident in the authenticity of what we've published here.

David Ruddock
David's phone is whatever is currently sitting on his desk. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • butlerpcnet

    While this may sound authoritarian and opposite of allowing freedom, this is totally in the users favor since most phone companies just milk consumers with fancy looking hardware, then bail out of actually supporting them down the road.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ David Ruddock

      This has literally nothing to do with supporting users down the road.

      "Again, I'm just trying to make this crystal clear so that everyone understands this policy is not a way for Google to force OEMs to update devices. This is only about the GMS certification process, nothing else. "

      • butlerpcnet

        Ah good point. I should really say "support users at the beginning of the road". They will definitely still abandon users down the road, and just provide the bare minimum! lol

        • Crispin Swickard

          At least if this were the case that the road they are starting on isn't worn down the cobblestone when they start down it.

        • EowynCarter

          True, but hey, that's s start.

      • abobobilly

        If that really is the case, then it proves that Google doesn't give a sh*t about about OEMs not giving latest OS in their phones, when released.

        Maybe they are happy. More thumbs up for Nexus Lineup right, for being faster-updates-getter and all that.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Artem Russakovskii

      It's really about the initial experience, not the one down the road. Start new or don't start at all.

      • Don’t eat the old candy

        Really, this was the whole point of KitKat - to make older version's obsolete. It is supposed to work on low end devices so OEM's won't still be loading Gingerbread on new phones. Not really a revolution here, just a firm nudge.

        • squiddy20

          "Really, this was the whole point of KitKat - to make older version's obsolete."
          A) Isn't that the point of any update, be it to apps, OS, firmware, what have you?
          B) Haven't we been saying this for the past few Android versions, that "this" one will be the one to end "fragmentation" and such? Or am I just misunderstanding?

          • Lazer Bear

            You're missing a piece, what Don't eat the old candy is referring to is the fact that KitKat has been optimized for low-end devices with slower processors and smaller RAM. This means manufacturers can still load it on their low-end hardware and have it run smoothly, which was not always the case with post-Gingerbread versions of Android.
            This is also a step forward in resolving "fragmentation", which however I do not think anyone believes is going away anytime soon (honestly not sure where you picked that up).

          • meijin3

            Kit Kat is different because every new version of Android required more resources to run thus low end devices stuck to older software such as Gingerbread. The system requirements for Kit Kat were lowered so that weaker hardware could actually run the newer versions.

  • darkdude1

    So it basically means new devices ship with a minimum version of Android? I thought that was a standard anyway. It's laughable devices are still being released with 4.1/4.2

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/ Artem Russakovskii

      Supposedly, in big OEMs, it's been an unwritten suggested standard, but it was never a rule. I believe there are still devices being released with 4.0 and even 2.3.

      • Michael

        2.3 HA newbs

        • Evan Cm

          again the only ones releasing devices still on 2.3 are really, REALLY low end manufacturers, mostly in third world countries. Google is working now to provide a universal experience even to those low end users, because if they're given a crappy user experience they're more likely to switch to a competitor down the line.

          • abobobilly

            I think you should have a look at some third world countries selling those chinese mobiles and stuff. You'll be surprised that they are being released with Jelly Bean, for a hardware suitable for Gingerbread (now Kit Kat). Like we have QMobile, or VoiceMobile in Pakistan (actual manufacturing companies are different).

  • Bluewall

    This won't change anything really.
    Do you really imagine the HTC M8 or the Samsung Galaxy S5 coming with Gingerbread or heck, 4.3 ?
    This isn't a problem with company like HTC, Samsung or LG, which are the main android OEMS.
    The problem is about update, not about the OS the phones is shipped with.

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/eric-ravenscraft/ Eric Ravenscraft

      "This isn't a problem for me, ergo literally nothing will change."

      Of course this will change things. You know that "tablet" your tech illiterate aunt bought from Walgreens for $69 that's running Gingerbread? That won't get Google services anymore (unless it actually came out when Gingerbread was new). Even the most crappy, low-end devices will have a standard set for what OS version they should shoot for.

      Your problem is a much different (and frankly, much whinier) one. If you go out and buy a new tablet with Android 4.3 on it today, you'll still have a great device for years even if it never receives an update. If someone else goes out and buys a Gingerbread phone today, they're going to have a much crappier experience. I know it's crazy to comprehend, but Google's making an OS for billions of people. Not every decision that's going to be made is for the benefit of the hardcore #holoyolo Nexus warriors.

      • Bluewall

        Fair enough (but no need to call me a "whiner" on a tech subject anyway).

        My point was, it's not the main problem about Android. The problem is more about updates than what is the shipped OS. You talk about some very very low end tablets that are a very little part of android devices sales.

        I was just saying that I won't affect the main part of Android sales :)

        • Evan Cm

          actually, low end devices make up a HUGE percentage of Android sales. I don't have a link to the exact figures, but here in the USA we see far more of the high-end, flagship phones then other countries do. The reason Android is at over 80% market share globally is because of its use in the Third World, on a wide variety of low end devices. It's this market that Google is worried about because they'll have old, buggy, vulnerable (to viruses and whatnot) software.

          So actually this would effect a huge chunk of Android sales, and it's an area Google is clearly working to improve.

          • Michał Ostrowski

            Vast majority of these devices ship without Google Play Services, thus they do not pass GMS certification and aren't covered by the above restriction...

          • Evan Cm

            yes, but even that looks likely to change in the near future, as Google continues to link more and more core OS features (like the ability to make phone calls) to GMS. So this move, coupled with the kind of changes we saw most prominently in the new 4.4 release, are going to result in driving up the adoption rate of newer versions of Android at the lower end hardware market.

      • jaduncan

        In fairness, Chinese low end stuff probably didn't come with licenced GMS in the first place.

  • abhi345

    So will google play be blocked on my 2.3.6 galaxy young?

    • http://www.androidpolice.com/author/eric-ravenscraft/ Eric Ravenscraft

      No. But if Samsung tried to release a brand new phone running 2.3.6 today, it would not be allowed to ship with the Play Store.

    • Sean Royce

      Why are you even using a phone that old.

      • David

        "Why are you even using a phone that old"

        Hey, not everyone on this planet makes money like people in the better developed World. I know a friend here in Indonesia that bought an early Android smart phone on credit; it takes years to pay it off. It isn't because the phone was outrageously expensive or that the credit terms were lousy, it's because he doesn't make much money at all - like most people.

      • abhi345

        Not everyone is rich to change phones every year.

        • EowynCarter

          And not everyone care about changing phones every year.

        • Sean Royce

          Dude even you could afford the Moto G.

  • chris125

    So they just won't update device once it's released since they will be worried about the new devic meeting the standard. Still doesn't seem like it is going to help much.

  • Sapko82

    Speaking of Google I/O. When is it?

    • joser116

      History says it will be in May...3 months!OMG!

      • SlasH3R

        i can't wait !! I/O14 <3

  • Zargh

    I'm more shocked that they weren't doing this in the first place, to be honest.

    • Raloc

      They didn't have any weight to throw around before. Imagine if they would have tried pulling this before the Play Store started becoming relevant around 4.1~. Everyone would have clamored to replace the Play Store in a heartbeat and could have possibly succeeded. But now in 2014, if you launch without the Play Store or Google Apps your phone is as good as dead.

      • Laura Wilson

        Really, this was the whole point of KitKat - to make older version's obsolete.

        • Porco boia cane cattivone

          +1 for your photo

          • abobobilly

            She got 56 Up-Votes. HOW THE F*CK DID SHE GET THEM? :S

          • Porco boia cane cattivone

            Is She is a professional troll?

          • Taedirk

            Because Disqus votes are easily manipulated. Go check out some other sites like siliconera and you'll routinely find one or two posts with a metric fuckton of votes one way or the other.

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  • Cory Wilson

    I don't see why any OEM would make a device that ran anything other than kitkat at this point. Kitkat even has low resource mode for budget devices so why would you use anything else? It may not force OEMs to update thereafter but no sense in starting your devices out of date!

    • makapav

      From now on, yes.

      But until Kit Kat, ICS was a bitch on memory that was bullied by Jelly Bean and 4.3 took the effin' lid off it.

  • J_Pod

    Am I the only one who thinks the graphic for this article is hilarious?

    • usaff22

      It's mean! lol

  • Gunny Wallen

    This is really good news for folks buying a NEW device. I think it's shameful that many flagship devices shipped this year with 1 year old software. *glares at LG*

  • Benito Wood

    yay! the lenovo x 2 won't come with gingerbread!

  • Matthew Fry

    Death to Gingerbread! I know this doesn't stop people from using their Gingerbread device till 2020 but it at least stops them being sold.

    • JD

      Not entirely. This will only keep new devices with old software from being certified. Devices that are already in production and that have already been certified can continue to be produced. I do think it will have a positive effect in the long run. Why by that $100 low end prepaid phone with 2.3 when you can another $100 low end prepaid phone with 4.3?

    • Ryan

      lol, this won't stop me using my Droid X though. Awesome device it was. But yeah, JD took the words out of my mouth on what I was thinking of saying.

      • Jordan

        To be fair, the Droid X was launched when Gingerbread WAS the newest version of Android. There's nothing wrong with that, it's the fact that phones are still being released today with Gingerbread that creates a problem.

      • http://www.facebook.com/lucyparanormal Daniel Tiberius

        I saw more people switch to iPhone because of issues with the Droid X than any other phone. Seemed pretty buggy when friends would show it to me.

    • abobobilly

      Sheeet. That first line made me burst into a huge laugh :D Funny as hell.

      I think its high-time that Gingerbread to take a hike. Kit Kat should be a much better replacement, being a much more optimized and all that.

  • cooldoods

    Since KitKat comes with both Project Butter and Project Svelte, any new hardware should be running on it at least. So this is a win for consumers. It's up to chip manufacturers to get up to speed and support KitKat even in their low-end (i.e. inexpensive) solutions.

  • Patrick Smithopolis

    If true that policy is still too lax. In May KitKat will be six months old. After that time no phone should be released without Kitkat. That's more than enough time for any manufacturer to get their crap together.

    • Lazer Bear

      I'm not really sure at what point of the design and manufacturing process this GMS approval sits, but depending on that, 6 months could be too small a window of time to get done with all certifications, testing etc.

      • Patrick Smithopolis

        Samsung and HTC are both going to release phones in March. Both phones will have Kitkat. Samsung's new Galaxy Note tablet which has already been released in some places sports 4.4. Six months is more than enough time.

  • Crispin Swickard

    I hope this is true. Its absurd seeing devices released with ancient OS versions. This not only hurts the individuals that have the phones, but the app developers that need to try to code for the various versions out there keeping the from making the apps as good as they can be.

    Why some are still coming out with gingerbread looking assets for radio buttons, and sliders, and such is a mystery however..

    I know that a development cycle for a phone may take many months, but there is no excuse for them being still released with 4.0, or older this day, and age. Especially when 4.1, 4.3, and 4.4 run much better (4.2 not so much in my experience). Even if they are for other developing markets there is no reasonable reason to give the user an experience as good as they can manage. Sure they have to license GApps, but they are not paying anything for the OS itself.

  • Franta Nesveda

    I am not sure if this means newer OS versions on devices... or no software updates for devices.

    • Android Developer

      neither, it's only about new devices getting license to use Google apps - if they are requesting the license to a device that is shipped with a too old version - the license won't be granted.
      that's it. it doesn't have anything to do with updates.

      since the windows are quite large, this will almost have no effect on the large manufacturers, only on those that insist on releasing really old android versions...

      • Franta Nesveda

        Uh-huh. But I thought that you have to do the CTS test for every update you want to roll out to your device. Or is CTS different from GMS approval test?

        • Android Developer

          That's another topic which I'm not aware of.
          My guess is that you should do the extra test , but your license will not be affected in any way.
          Besides, as I see it, the hardware requirements barely changes, so it shouldn't be a problem.

  • Tyler

    This is great for the low-end phone market that always seems to get shafted (Moto G being the exception) when it comes to their version of android. While this helps with new phones, it doesn't help with updates, unless you make it so every phone needs to stay updated to keep access to the store which would be a horrible turn for the worse. None the less i think this is a step in the right direction.

  • Severo Rivera

    Yes!

  • sounder

    Sounds like Google is trying to position itself as the main product updater.

  • willy

    The more google tightens it's grip, the more I look forward to Replicant.

  • Scott43

    I hope this bring more good than evil in the long run...

  • slurivariv

    I'm in love with this decision.

  • Sur

    Should be implemented as soon as possible. Google should have done this earlier

  • Fatal1ty_93_RUS

    What took them so long? Jeez Googoe

  • mikegonzalez2k

    I wonder how this will affect carriers that sell older phones. For example there are many phones at Verizon that are still running Android 4.1. With this new compliance will it mean that they are no longer able to sell them?

    • https://play.google.com/store/search?q=kodiak+211 Google_Is_The_Higgs_Boson

      From my understanding, it's only for new phones... If a new phone coming out, was running ICS, than they would have a problem getting this certification. Older phones wouldn't have the same problem, because the older phones came out, while
      ICS was still relevant...

  • http://www.allabtgadgets.in/ allabtGADGETSin

    In my opinion it's good for customers as vendors would not be able to ship devices with decade old Android version

  • Vedant Kumar

    Sony, are you listening?

  • thartist

    Can't wait till July when they can only ship KitKat!

    TAKE THAT NASTY OEMS!

  • https://play.google.com/store/search?q=kodiak+211 Google_Is_The_Higgs_Boson

    I've been thinking for awhile now, that Google should make Android, only backwards compatible with apps built for the version before it... For example, we're on KitKat now, as the newest version... KitKat should only be able to use apps made for JB and above... This would keep Developers moving forward, and ultimately push OEMs to update their phones... Just a thought...

  • finnr

    Kit-Kat for all

  • Niko

    this should etch those .05s in stone :) this will be the kiss of death!

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