2011 in Review: Android

androids

It’s been a big year for the Android operating system and it has grown in many ways. We’ve seen two new versions of the OS, insane growth across the board, and no signs of slowing down. Here are a few highlights of Android this year.

Activations/Marketshare

Comscore’s latest numbers for Android in the US pegged the OS with a 44.8% total marketshare for the month of September and we can only imagine that phones like the Galaxy Nexus, Droid RAZR, and HTC Rezound will only strengthen these numbers going forward.

In July of 2011, Google announced that 550,000 Android devices are being activated every day. That number didn’t change when we got a quick update in mid-November but it’s hardly something to scoff at, either.

OS updates

Android 3.0 Honeycomb & Motorola Xoom

In late February, the world got its first Android 3.0 Honeycomb tablet, the Motorola Xoom. The interesting holographic user interface was easy on the eyes and provided loads of other features to boot. Problem is, Honeycomb wasn’t received all that well. This is mainly due to the fact that it was essentially released in half-baked form and it wasn’t until tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 came around that people took notice of Google’s tablet-centric version of Android.

Honeycomb received a couple of updates since it’s debut and has only provided minimal enhancements. That said, the updates were desperately needed and made Android tablets more usable than ever. Still, with a tablet market completely dominated by Apple’s iPad and iPad 2, not many people were sure they needed Android on a big screen and sales have ultimately suffered because of this. If anything, it won’t be until Ice Cream Sandwich hits Android tablets before people start to take notice. Maybe.

Android 3.1 & Google TV

One of the updates mentioned above for Google’s tablet version of Android was 3.1, which brought a few new features to the table but was nothing spectacular. What was interesting about the update is that existing Google TV set-top boxes and TVs would receive this update, ridding the GTV software of the aging Android 2.1.

Said to launch this summer, the Google TV update didn’t start rolling out until about a month ago for Sony TVs, with the Logitech Revue left to wait it out. In fact, my Revue received the update just a day prior to writing this.

While the 3.1 update only provided small tweaks for tablets, Android 3.1 for Google TV was rather significant. The cluttered UI was simplified in many ways, the Android Market was officially introduced, and a level of polish was found throughout that may have been the most surprising.

So how is Android 3.1 on the TV? Meh, it’s ok. The Android Market is just about as sparse as can be and installing apps on the Revue can take a while. We’d say that Google TV is in need of some Ice Cream Sandwich love but we have a feeling that won’t be happening anytime soon, especially for the Revue.

Gingerbread

Android 2.3 Gingerbread may have been released in 2010 but it wasn’t until 2011 before a majority of phones began to ship with it. In the beginning of the year, a majority of phones were still shipping with Android 2.2 Froyo but that slowly changed and Gingerbread is now the most widely used version of Android today. In fact, Gingerbread is running on more than 50% of all Android devices today, leaving Froyo at the wayside.

Ice Cream Sandwich

When we first got a glimpse of Ice Cream Sandwich at the Google I/O, even though it was said that it will bring all of the goodies from Honeycomb to the phone, we still had no idea what we were in for. There’s absolutely no question that Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich is the best version of the OS to date. Debuting on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Android 4.0 does indeed brings Honeycomb to phones but in a way that will make you smile.

After seeing the mess that was the Honeycomb launch earlier this year, some may have begun to question Matias Duarte’s position as design lead. Well, Honeycomb was rushed for two reasons: Google needed to get a tablet OS out as fast as possible and Android 4.0 was the obvious main focus.

Android 4.0 signals a new beginning for the OS, plain and simple. Said to be the version that will put an end to fragmentation, which is a bold claim, Ice Cream Sandwich will be able to run on both Android phones and tablets. It will likely take a while for Ice Cream Sandwich to dethrone Android 2.3 Gingerbread but once it does, hopefully the numbers Google updates us with every month will begin to even out.

For more on Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, be sure to check out the official review here.

Manufacturers

Samsung became King

In 2010, one could easily peg the likes of HTC or Motorola to be the king of Android, with Samsung not taking the OS too seriously until the launch of the Galaxy S phones. (Remember the Behold II?) Today, the landscape is quite different in the Android world. The year of 2011 brought us probably the best Android phone to date, with the exception of Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus, the Galaxy S II.

The obvious successor to the original Galaxy S handset, the Galaxy S II literally almost doubled all of the specifications over its predecessor. The Galaxy S II also shipped with the Super AMOLED Plus display, which is still one of our favorites today. In both 4.3 and 4.5 inch variants, Samsung’s latest flagship handset definitely needed to be handled to be experienced and the hardware was so nice, even the unintrusive but useless TouchWiz was bearable. The US versions of the handset featured a TouchWiz update that offered up a lot of nice tweaks that made the handset my hands-down favorite phone I’d ever touched and I would have one in my pocket right now had it not been for the Galaxy Nexus.

Samsung has its display tech to help them with its phones, and even though the Galaxy line is made of plastics, it was the WVGA Super AMOLED Plus screen that drew you in and bested even some of the qHD displays found on other devices.

Simply put, Samsung has taken the Android world by storm by providing great handsets and probably one of the best known manufacturer-made handset brand name for Android, the Galaxy S. Plus, Samsung also ships arguably the best Android tablet available today. Until the Transformer Prime is officially available, that is.

If I went to the past and told my past self that I would be singing the praises of Samsung to this degree, I’d probably cry a little, laugh a little, and promptly punch future me in the face.

HTC Kept Making the Same Phone

In stark contrast to Samsung, HTC has always relied on its software to differentiate itself from the competition and it’s worked out pretty well for them, too. Couple the sexy Sense UI with probably the most solid hardware you could find on a smartphone today and you’d think that HTC was destined to always be on top of the Android landscape. Well, HTC hasn’t stopped making great handsets but it continues to make the same handset, essentially.

This Sense phone has 3D, and this Sense phone is the same thing with a slightly different design with no 3D. This Sense phone has 4G. This Sense phone has Beats audio. This Sense phone was designed specifically for women. This is the sequel of that one Sense phone and it looks exactly the same but it’s better. This Sense has the best camera available on a smartphone today. Wait, this one too.

In 2011, HTC handsets became a thing of monotony. HTC Sense became over-bloated and uninspiring after a while, as its now filled with useless applications you’ll probably never use. HTC Sense was once needed to cover up Android’s shortcomings. That’s no longer the case anymore and while many people love HTC’s software, anytime we pick one up we’re bored immediately. Plus, 2011 was the year where it was discovered that HTC’s customization had made security holes in its phones.

I’ve seen too many big clocks on HTC phones than I care to and I only hope it will consider creating a brand with its hardware instead of its software.

All that said, HTC still makes the best hardware when it comes to Android devices today and that’s something that is pretty hard to argue with. Who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky in the coming years and HTC will get to make another Nexus handset. We can only hope.

LG Became Notable

To everyone’s surprise, LG popped onto the Android scene with handsets that didn’t look like afterthoughts. Sorry, LG Eve. In the beginning of 2011, LG released the world’s first dual-core smartphone, the Optimus 2X, which eventually landed on T-Mobile USA as the G2X. LG also offered up the first glasses-free Android smartphone, the Optimus 3D, which later landed on AT&T for the Thrill 4G.

LG’s software wasn’t anything special but it was easy to appreciate its subtlety. Handset designs that likely aimed for understated came off as boring. Still, LG tried their darndest and with phones like the Prada K2 on the way, LG has no intentions of getting out of the Android game anytime soon. So, let’s hope it can bring a HTC level of quality to its handsets without needing to paint over Android dramatically and it just may get a bit more respect.

Motorola got Bought Out

Probably some of the best news to hear was that Motorola was acquired by Google in mid-August. Not because Google needed the patents, which it did, but the simple fact that there may be a slight chance we may never have to see a Motoblur phone again.

Motorola attempted to do some interesting things this year and is now tweaking its hardware with the same design aesthetic as the Droid RAZR and Photon 4G. The designs aren’t anything special but you can see that the upcoming XYboards and the Droid RAZR are in the same family and I think people will enjoy that sort of familiarity.

Motorola produced some decent handsets this year and while they may not be the hottest sellers on the market, you’ll probably find a few in people’s pockets if you look. We’re glad to see Moto trying some new things but we also wish they would rid itself of some old ones. Motoblur being one, and the useless laptop dock  that likely no one uses should be put out to pasture.

Although Google has come out and said that Motorola won’t have first dibs on the Nexus line, we wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a Moto-Nexus in the future. We really need to wait and see what comes of this but we’re sure that Motorola Mobility is perfectly fine being owned by Google right now.

Sony Ericsson Tried

2011 was the year that the world saw the very first PlayStation phone made by Sony Ericsson, the Xperia Play. The bulky Android smartphone packed a slide out gamepad and came with a handful of pre-installed Playstation one games. The handset launch was followed by a handful of rather ridiculous ads that featured Kristen Schaal and a thumb harvesting Android ad campaign. Verizon Wireless eventually launched the handset, with AT&T to follow.

The idea of a PlayStation phone sounded great at the time but we were ultimately disappointed. We would have much rather waited to see a dual-core toting Xperia Play and not a handset that is almost considered low-end at this point. Either way, the PlayStation phone debuted with a little less than a splash but that certainly wasn’t the only phone we saw come from Sony Ericsson this year.

Probably one of the sexiest phones we’ve ever seen came out this year in the form of the Xperia Arc. The super slim phone “arced”  in the middle, which made for some gorgeous profile shots. The handset never saw a US release on a carrier but SE did eventually make the Arc and other handsets available unlocked. Not even a 8 months later, Sony Ericsson announced the Xperia Arc S, which is essentially the exact same phone in terms of design but with better specs. Oh yeah, and lets not forget about the Nozomi, or the Arc HD that looks like it will deliver the goods when released.

Sony Ericsson has always pushed out unique and sexy hardware but we wish that we’d see more handsets come to the US. Maybe 2012 will be that year.

Some bigger, non-handset related news about SE would be that Sony is purchasing Ericsson’s half of Sony Ericsson, and by the middle of 2012, you’ll only see Sony branded handsets. We don’t care what name is on our phones, just give us the Play 2 already.

 

Android Market Webstore

In early February, Google launched the Android Market Webstore. Simply put, the Webstore was a new way of browsing Android applications, which was previously only possible by going to the Android Market on a phone. The Webstore also took advantage of a feature announced with Android 2.2 Froyo, Chrome to Phone, which would allow you to install applications on your phone by clicking a button on you computer.

Just a few weeks after the launch of the Webstore, a tab was added for users to access Google Books, which launched in late 2010.

Google Music Beta

It wasn’t until the Google I/O until we saw Google Music Beta, which wasn’t much of a surprise to anyone. What was surprising is that Google actually wasn’t selling music but allowing users to upload their music library to the cloud and play it back on either a computer or smartphone. The feature was baked right into the new Google Music player that launched the same day but you could also get access to your tunes by going to music.google.com. That said, the service remained invite-only for quite a while.

Google Music Beta allowed a user to upload 20,000 songs into the cloud for free. In comparison, Amazon’s cloud service limited uploads to 5GB but you could pay for more space if you so chose. Google’s cloud-based music service was nice but it wasn’t exactly what people were looking for.

Google Movies

Google Movies also launched alongside the Google Music Beta, allowing Android users to rent a wide variety of movies. The selection may not be terribly robust but there’s definitely enough movies to choose from that should keep you occupied. A new version of the Android Market began rolling out to phones and a new tab for movies was found right on the Webstore.

After successfully renting a movie, you have 30 days to start watching the rental but once you do start it, you only have it for 24 hours. You can also watch the movie as much as you’d like within that 24 hour time frame but who would want to?

The introduction of Google Music Beta and Movies was the real beginning of the search giant building out a real ecosystem for Android. While it still may pale in comparison to that of iOS, Android could finally compete in some facet. And Google wasn’t finished.

(Real) Google Music

Music Beta and Movies may have occupied some for a while, but Google certainly wasn’t done. It took quite a long time but in November of 2011, Google officially announced the availability of Music in the Android Market. The service seemed to have been stalled quite a few times, as Google hadn’t sealed deals with all major record companies. That didn’t stop the service from launching and now, just like Google Movies, Music can now be purchased from the Android Market Webstore and directly from handsets.

Not only could you purchase music from the Android Market, but Google partnered with a handful of artists to give away free songs. There’s also a Free Song of the Day section to keep your music collection growing.

One of the more interesting features of Google Music is that you can allow your Google+ friends to listen to a track or album you’ve just purchased for free. Google has also made it easy for independent artists to add their own music to the service and choose how much to charge.

2012 Predictions

It’s been a pretty strong year for the Android OS and we’re more than certain that 2012 will be no different. We can expect the introduction of Android Jelly Bean and whatever it brings to the table, as well as Ice Cream Sandwich beginning to ship on more and more phones.

Android has been going strong for a while now but that doesn’t mean that iOSBlackBerry and Windows Phone haven’t seen some great changes this year.

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