On 12th October 2011 Apple unveiled iOS 5.0 to the world. 7 days later Google released Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich).
Apple rarely announces how many devices are running each version of its mobile operating system but, according to third-party stats, today only a few percent of iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch owners are still running an earlier version of iOS.
In contrast, Google is much more up-front about how many people are running each version but it doesn’t compare favourably. Just 39.3% of users have access to the 15-month-old Android OS or one of its later revisions.
Of course, there are some mitigating factors. Android is a much more open ecosystem with dozens of manufacturers needing to test and approve updates for hundreds or even thousands of devices. Apple on the other hand retains a strict control over its (smaller) mobile empire and is able to push out updates directly to end users. But whatever the reasons, and despite Google’s recent efforts to rein in manufacturers and network operators, the fact remains that, unlike their iOS counterparts, Android app developers cannot target a recent version of the operating system and hope to have their app runnable by the majority of device owners.
Google has tried to address this issue with its support library, which brings some of the more recent API additions to earlier Android versions but this is only a partial solution that adds complexity and does nothing to resolve the vast visual differences between Android 4.x and its predecessors.
Today if you want to reach over 90% of iOS users you must support iOS 5.1, which was released in March 2012, and later versions. To reach the same proportion of Android users you would have to target Android 2.2 (Froyo), which dates back to May 2010.
The many comparisons of the relative merits of the latest iOS versus the latest Android version are largely irrelevant to Android app developers who are working from a baseline that is almost two years older than that of their iOS counterparts. An iOS developer can build an app that requires the absolute latest version of the operating system confident that the user base will soon be there (iOS 6 has reached 78.5% penetration in four months). Android developers will always need to be more conservative.
1. These stats may not be fully representative of all iOS users but they provide useful ballpark figures.