Androids Unite: How Ice Cream Sandwich Will End the OS Schism

Starting at the end of 2011, the Great Schism of the Android mobile operating system — between Android version 2 for phones, and Android version 3 for tablets — will finally end. The rollout of Ice Cream Sandwich will signal the start of something new.

At Google I/O this year, the company announced that Ice Cream Sandwich was coming and that it would end the 2.X/3.X split between tablets and phones. News about Google Music buried many of Google’s Android announcements.

We’ve clarified a few points about Ice Cream Sandwich with a Google rep. Here’s exactly why this OS will be one of the most significant launches from Google this year.

One OS for All Gadgets

Honeycomb originally launched as Google’s operating system for tablets. Formally dubbed Android 3.0, it represented a break from the 2.X line of OSes (Donut, Eclair, Froyo and Gingerbread) that were built with mobile phones in mind.

Even before Honeycomb made its debut, the myriad variations in the 2.X line had caused many complaints, and fragmentation had become a well-worn buzzword on the lips of Android critics.

In July 2010, only 2% of Android users were running the most recent version of the OS, while almost 20% of devices were running the obsolete Android 1.5.

And as of March 2011, after the launch of the 3.X Honeycomb line, a full seven variants of Android were in use on the 310 types of Android devices. At that time, only 1.9% of those devices were running the most current versions of the OS. Some apps scaled and functioned well on 2.3 and 3.0 devices; others did not.

So the fragmentation issue is a valid one, particularly when it comes from developers who have to tweak apps to run across a wide range of operating systems — or resign themselves to apps that will only run on certain versions.

Ice Cream Sandwich will do one important thing for the ever-widening OS ecosystem: It will close the gap between tablet-specific and mobile-specific versions. As of the end of 2011, devs can start building for just one OS across multiple devices. And according to Google, those apps will “just work.”

Apps That Scale

With Ice Cream Sandwich, which will likely be Android 4.0 (Google can’t confirm that yet), devs can build one app that will work across all platforms, including TVs, tablets, phones, ereaders and any other Android-powered devices.

Google says these apps will scale nicely on screens large and small — that’s a big selling point of Ice Cream Sandwich. The OS will bring lots of Honeycomb-like features to smaller screens, too.

The dearth of tablet-ready Android apps is a fact of the Android Market. Not many devs have actually committed to making great tablet apps. In a recent survey, developers overwhelmingly cited fragmentation as the biggest reason. In the Android Market, you’ll see some apps with a single, underpowered app for both mobiles and tablets. Other apps will have a separate version for each device.

We’re looking forward to seeing one really good, thorough, feature-rich app that works beautifully across all devices. That’s the value proposition of Ice Cream Sandwich for devs.

What Happens to Honeycomb?

Honeycomb 3.1 was also just announced at Google I/O and will be coming out at the end of the summer. But does the end of the fork mean obsolescence for Honeycomb?

Honeycomb is “a pretty wholesale change” from the 2.X line, according to a Google rep. But Honeycomb isn’t a dead evolutionary line; rather, Ice Cream is a continuation of Honeycomb.

And although the 3.1 and (likely) 4.0 variants will launch about six months apart, Google is hoping development for tablet and TV apps on 3.1 won’t stall. In the mobile world, six months can seem like an eternity.

Manufacturers and carriers will need to keep up with this rapid iteration, and their handling of the 2.X line hasn’t exactly been reassuring. But Ice Cream Sandwich will be open source — so when it rolls out in OTA updates and on devices is largely up to corporate entities outside of the Googleplex.

Here’s the part of the Google I/O keynote that details some Ice Cream Sandwich features:

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