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.