Friday, February 18, 2011

Ginger Honey Ice Cream Mess

A few nights ago I was working at the Silicon Valley Android Meetup. eBay was hosting the meetup, and I had volunteered to help with the registration table. One of my co-workers was talking about how very few people had brought business cards with them to the event (there was a raffle and you could use your business card to enter it), and I commented that business cards were antiquated. I mentioned Bump as one of many more sophisticated alternatives. She quickly downloaded Bump to her Android phone, and we attempted to ... well ... Bump. We had a hard time mainly because the accelerometer on her phone was not very sensitive.

She remarked: "I really need a new phone."

I asked: "Yeah what's that thing running, like Android 1.6?"

She replied: "I wish, it's actually 1.5."

Now I was actually kind of amazed that Bump even worked on a 1.5 phone. But before I could make some witty comment about her phone...

She asked: "What is the latest version anyways?"

I replied immediately: "2.3"

She gasped is disbelief: "Holy crap, I've only had the phone for a year or so. Do they release a new version of Android every month or something?"

Who can blame her for her dismay at the velocity of Android? She went on to curse the phone maker (Samsung) and network (Sprint) for not putting out an update (though I think they did, but not OTA? Anyways, you should be able to guess the model now.) Of course who can blame handset makers and carriers for being slow to put out updates, again given the pace of Android. As soon as you get done getting one version ready to ship, another one comes out.

Of course that's part of the fun from a developer standpoint. And part of the pain -- a big part. However the mach speed evolution of Android in the past is starting to look downright soothing compared to the thinny before us. Let's recap briefly

In December 2010, Google announced Android 2.3 a.k.a. Gingerbread. This seemed all well and good at the time. Android 2.2 (Froyo) came out half a year earlier, so this seemed like a reasonable amount of time between releases. Of course we would later learn that the Android team was not pacing themselves, the long time between releases was a fluke. Anyways, the timing still seemed a little odd, as it was right before the holidays. The Nexus S was simultaneously released and it was running 2.3. Still there was no way any other Gingerbread running devices would be out in stores for the holiday season. Also, there seemed to be a lot of oft-rumored stuff missing from Gingerbread.

In early January (a month later), Android 3.0 a.k.a. Honeycomb was previewed at CES. Videos of Honeycomb in action were posted to YouTube. Three weeks later, a preview version of the SDK was made available to developers. It had a lot of the new UI features that had been rumored for Gingerbread. However, it didn't just bolt on new features or refine existing APIs. It added some very core fundamental things. There were Fragments: a new (better?) way to organize your application code. There was the app bar: a persistent UI element at the top of the screen where contextual extras could be placed. The app bar is what the menu should have been (nobody uses the menu.) There was also the system bar at the bottom of the screen. This is not directly accessible to developers, however it is where Honeycomb's new more powerful notifications originate from. Android already had the best notification system out there (sorry webOS and your new imitator, Windows Phone ... and iOS is not even in the conversation), but now you get notifications that the use can interact with without interrupting what they were doing. Anyways, 3.0 is a release unlike any other in Android's history, but mostly in a good way. However it was billed as being just for tablets, leaving us with two different "latest" versions of Android.

In February (just this week) we get comments from exiting CEO Eric Schmidt that Gingerbread and Honeycomb were merging together in the "I" release of Android. This was release has been "known" to be Ice Cream Sandwich for awhile. Would it be Android 2.4? Would it come out at Google IO?

But wait, it gets better. Apparently Android 2.4 will be released before Google IO, and it will not be Ice Cream Sandwich. We will have to wait for the sandwich until later in the year apparently.

So what the hell is going on? First let me say this. I have been using a Nexus S for about a month now. When it works (which is most of the time), it is fantastic, easily the best phone I've ever used. However, it is also the buggiest phone I have ever used. I've never had the reported spontaneous reboot happen to me during a call (by the way the call quality is excellent, the best I've ever had in a smartphone.) However, I often have to reboot it myself because it just hangs during a call. Or it will suddenly lose its network connection and never get it back until ... I reboot it. Or it will stop receiving email (service probably crashing and the OS putting it out of its memory I'm guessing) until ... I reboot it. Since this phone is very similar to the Galaxy S in terms of hardware, I am guessing that this is mostly a software issue. And since this baby is running "stock" Android, that makes it a Gingerbread issue. Maybe this explains why 2.3 has not been released to any phone? Maybe this explains the need for yet another major release before the Ice Cream Merge?

Besides the 2.3 issues, most of the rest of the craziness comes from the need to go after tablets in a big way. That's why a lot of in-flux, potentially undercooked code is being pushed out so quickly. That's why we all get to see git repo being forked and merged in such a public manner. Software development is scary and messy more often than not.

So back to the scorecard. It makes sense that 2.4 will not be Ice Cream Sandwich. It can't include the Honeycomb features and yet have a lower release number, right? Perhaps Ice Cream Sandwich will be 3.1, later this summer. Or maybe it will be 3.2, as I would not be surprised if there were a massive bug fix release after 3.0, given its obviously rushed nature. So maybe we can go 2.3, 2.4. 3.0, 3.1, 3.2 all in the span of what, 6 or 9 months? Yee haw!!

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