Popular photography app 500px is at the forefront of a growing developer movement. Despite nearly sixty percent of users running a version of Android under 4.0, 500px will be dropping support for older versions of Android. What’s the thinking behind the growing trend of, “Out with the old, in with the new?” I reached out to 500px’s COO and co-founder, Evgeny Tchebotarev, to gain some more insight.
At first glance, developers dropping support for older versions of Android seems like a huge mistake. According to the latest Android platform distribution numbers, fifty-five percent of Android users are on a version of Android lower than 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich. Logic would dictate that by dropping support for Android devices not running 4.0 or higher, you’d miss out on over half of the market. But platform distribution numbers are deceiving.
In a recent comment to Mobile Syrup, 500px’s Evgeny Tchebotarev said that, “Just 16% of users use our app with Android version lower than 4.0, and this number is dropping by around 0.1% every week.” After knowing this, what originally seemed like a horrible idea, alienating half of the users on the platform you’re developing for, seems like an effective way speed up development and ensure a better user experience. When I asked Evgeny what he thinks dropping support for older versions of Android will do for the development cycle, that’s exactly what he said.
Although we never dropped any Android version before, but did so for iOS – speed of development and quality of code increased dramatically. I'd assume that dropping some Android versions will streamline our testing, allow us to focus more on performance, and can actually lead to an increase in app ratings.Evgeny Tchebotarev500px
500px is in a mildly-unique position, with a user based compromised of mostly, “Very savvy users with the latest Android phones,” Evgeny says. But they aren’t alone. Normally, once any certain firmware’s install base reaches 10-15%, dropping support for that firmware is common practice. Android is different right now, in that you can essentially break the entire platform into two sections, despite individual firmware numbers. 500px is lucky enough to have only 10-15% of their users on a version of Android under 4.0.
Developer 25 Squares, the folks behind the fantastic Google Reader client Press, can share another story about how the adoption rate of newer versions of Android is speeding up. In a twitter post, 25 Squares revealed some interesting stats on who’s using their app. According to the tweet, their install base consists of, “15% on 4.0, 30% on 4.1, and 55% on 4.2.” Press is only available for phones running Android 4.0 and up, but knowing that only a couple devices run the newest version of Android, 4.2, and still more than half of Press’ customers are using 4.2, is impressive.
After 25 Squares’ tweet, other developers were eager to chime in, saying that even in their apps that do include versions of Android under 4.0, usage numbers were minimal, and that support for them would be dropped in later updates.
One of the Android developer community’s most popular devs, ROM Manager, Carbon Backup and Desk SMS’ Koush, is also adopting an Android 4.0 and up only development policy, again saying that platform distribution numbers don’t paint a proper picture of actual usage.
From this point forward, you’ll be hard pressed to find a lot of apps that make their initial appearance with support for Android all the way back to 1.6. Those that can drop older versions of Android will. And should. Apps like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook want to support as many older devices as possible, because there’s a good chance people with older devices are still using those services. So perhaps still developing for older versions of Android is in their best interest. But they belong to a shrinking club.
Developing for only Android 4.0 and higher is inevitable. Handfuls of incredibly talented developers and innovative services have already adopted it, and it’s all for the best. Evgeny Tchebotarev said, and I agree whole heartedly, “For the platform overall, moving forward is the key. Android was a very buggy system before 4.0, but has evolved a lot in 4.2. So I’d simply love to see more people upgrading and switching to newer, better, systems.”
In a perfect world, Google would have created an operating system that doesn’t require a potential sixty percent of its users to be shunned if developers want to streamline and simplify development, creating a better overall product. But that’s the way it is. Thankfully, in order for most developers to make the leap to a modern Android only development process, they aren’t losing even close to as many users as it may seem.
At the end of the day, developer’s like those behind 500px are making the right choice. We’re just left with one unanswered question — If practically no one using an older versions of Android is using these hot new apps, what in the hell are people doing with their older Android phones?