Google: Less Than 1 Percent of Android Devices Run Latest OS

The much touted latest version of Google's Android operating system, dubbed Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), is running on only 0.6 percent of Android devices according to new stats released by Google Thursday.

ICS is the collective name for the Android 4.0 – Android 4.0.3 builds of the operating system. It leverages elements of Gingerbread (Android 2.3 – Android 2.3.7) and the tablet-centric Honeycomb (Android 3.0 – Android 3.2).

Gingerbread runs the largest percentage of Android devices at 55.5 percent, followed by its predecessor, Froyo (Android 2.2), which runs 30.4 percent of Android devices. The third most prevalent version of the operating system is Éclair (Android 2.1), which runs 8.5 percent of Android devices. The Honeycomb tablet operating system runs 3.3 percent of Android devices.

ICS was announced in October and Google released the source code for the operating system in November. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the first Android device to feature the new operating system, was released overseas on Nov. 17. Verizon began selling it to US customers on Dec. 15.

That may not seem like much time, but by way of comparison Apple's iOS 5 attained 20 percent penetration of iPhones and iPads within five days of its release, according to data analytics company Chitika. Several months later, it is the dominant operating system for the platform.

But the Android environment is much more freewheeling than Apple's strictly controlled environment. Whereas Apple insists on acting as the gateway between customers on one side and carriers and device manufacturers on the other when it comes to updates and patches, Google leaves that responsibility to the hardware manufacturers, for the most part. Google only has a direct line on updating the Samsung Galaxy Nexus line of phones. Other Android devices receive updates and patches when and if carriers or device manufacturers choose to push them.

And that's why Android devices tend to be behind the curve when it comes to updated operating systems, explained Harry Sverdlove, chief technology officer of security firm Bit 9.

"There will soon be over half a billion smartphones in use worldwide, with the majority of consumers using their devices for both personal and business use," Sverdlove said. "Smartphones running the Android operating system represent the majority of all new phone purchases. Unlike Apple iOS, RIM BlackBerry or Windows Phone, the phone manufacturer—not the software vendor—is responsible for providing Android software updates to their smartphones."

He added, "Most Android phones come to market at least one major version behind the latest Android release, and they stay around six months behind the update curve moving forward. Manufacturers come out with newer models every 12 to 18 months and quickly end-of-life their previous models, usually well before the two-year contracts most users sign with their carriers. Phone carriers also inject themselves into the process, selling further customized models and sometimes charging data usage for software updates. The result is chaos. As anyone who has ever owned an Android phone can attest, waiting for your phone to receive the latest Android release is like walking through prickly bushes—slow, painful and sometimes buggy (except for the Google Nexus phone, the only model where Google is responsible for the software updates)."

And running an older version of the operating system doesn't just mean you're behind the times, Sverdlove said. It also puts the security of your device at risk. He explained the average smartphone user only spends about 3 percent of their time with a device using it as a phone.

"These are not phones which happen to be "smart"; these are small computers which happen to be phones," he said. "We use them for e-mail, business documents, Web browsing, online shopping, banking and more. They contain our private information and confidential data. We need to start viewing these devices with the same security scrutiny as we view normal computers and laptops."

He added, "All software has vulnerabilities. The Android code is no more vulnerable than Apple iOS or any other operating system. The issue is what happens when a flaw is discovered. The quicker a software update can be distributed, the more secure you are. The longer a device remains outdated with known vulnerabilities, the greater the risk. The Android market has cultivated innovation and significant growth in the smartphone industry, but there are systemic problems in the distribution ecosystem which adversely impact security."

Thor Olavsrud is a contributor to InternetNews.com, the news service of the IT Business Edge Network, the network for technology professionals.


Android, mobile