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Google needs to expand its developer preview to hardware partners

Google's acquisition of Android, the mobile operating system maker, was miniscule at an estimated $50 million. But the deal eight years ago turned out to be a huge coup that ultimately served as the foundation for Google's Android operating system now used in 75% of all smartphones and more than half of all tablets sold. Google's acquisition of Android, the mobile operating system maker, was miniscule at an estimated $50 million. But the deal eight years ago turned out to be a huge coup that ultimately served as the foundation for Google's Android operating system now used in 75% of all smartphones and more than half of all tablets sold.
Google's acquisition of Android, the mobile operating system maker, was miniscule at an estimated $50 million. But the deal eight years ago turned out to be a huge coup that ultimately served as the foundation for Google's Android operating system now used in 75% of all smartphones and more than half of all tablets sold. Photo: Shutterstock

Early last month, Sony (SNE) published instructions on how to install a developer preview of Google’s (GOOGL) latest mobile operating system, Android M. Initially, the program appeared to give application developers a head start on adding support and new features specific to both Android M, and Sony’s Xperia line of devices.

Such access for developers is unheard of in Android development. Hardware partners such as Sony only receive the full release of a new Android OS after it’s officially released, typically in the fall. This delay puts hardware partners at a distinct disadvantage, since they need time to ensure compatibility with both proprietary hardware and software customizations.

For the past two years, Google has released a developer preview that can only be installed on its own Nexus line of devices, and is intended for application developers to use when updating apps for the new OS. But, those who saw Sony’s original announcement had probably assumed Google had changed its approach by providing all of its hardware partners with full access to an OS preview. Unfortunately, to the dismay of many Android developers, that’s not the case.

Sony later added an update to its original post, clarifying the company merely released instructions to facilitate installation of a bare-boned version of Android M.

Android engineer Leo Liberman, from Switch Communications, told Fortune that despite Sony’s backtrack, the release wouldn’t have really benefited most developers anyways. “I am not sure I see the value to developers. From the videos [on Sony’s site] it doesn’t seem to be actually running Sony Xperia UI skin which is what would be helpful to test on” he said. “Most developers should—and do— own at least one modern Nexus device, so they are already playing around with native Android M and building for it.”

Missing from the preview are key components developers would need to truly update apps for the new OS. Features such as the Android M-specific application program interface (API) that would allow developers to test new features on the device aren’t included, and, as Liberman already pointed out, without Sony’s own customizable skin there’s even less to test against.

This isn’t Sony’s fault, however. Sony was simply trying to take a proactive approach that backfired, but ultimately shed light on the bigger problem with Android.

If Google wants Android developers and users to take advantage of the latest features across as many devices as possible, Google needs to grant its hardware partners access to a full OS preview sooner, rather than later.

Google should take a page out of Apple’s (AAPL) book by expanding its preview to all of its hardware partners from day one instead of limiting testing to a subset of devices. The sooner partners like HTC, Samsung, and Motorola are able to release the latest and greatest OS, the better off Android is aa a whole.

For example, as of June 1, Android Lollipop is currently running on a lowly lowly 12.4% of devices since its release last October. Compare that to the Apple’s iOS 8 which is currently running on 84% of devices in nearly the same time frame, and you can see why it’s a big problem.

The most popular version of Android OS was released in late 2013, nearly two years ago and if Google wants to truly take on Apple with its newest operating system it will think outside the box.