In the ten years since it was launched, Android has become the world’s most used operating system.
Since Android version 1.0 debuted on the HTC Dream in September 2008, smartphones have evolved immensely.
This Linux-based OS has also gone through various evolutions, to exploit improving hardware specifications – and to keep pace with rising user expectations.
A new version of Android debuts roughly once a year, augmented by one or two mid-cycle upgrades designed to tighten security or add extra functionality.
As a result, today’s UK Android market features numerous variations on the same architecture, providing differing user experiences.
The same, only different
Android uses the same sort of app-powered graphical user interface as Apple’s iOS and Microsoft’s Windows platforms.
Yet unlike these rival operating systems, nobody owns Android outright, or makes all the key decisions.
It’s managed by Google (who also run the Play app store), but the development of new versions is a more collaborative, freeform affair than the rigid rollouts of iOS or Windows.
On average, new Android versions emerge once a year, though the pace of change fluctuates.
Here in May 2018, the latest Android version is version 8.0, known as Oreo.
However, unless you buy a Google Pixel phone, you’re unlikely to have it on your handset yet.
Taste the difference
Each version of Android has been alphabetically named after a biscuit or form of confectionery.
Oreo replaced 2017’s Nougat, which in turn superseded Marshmallow (version 6.0) and Lollipop (5.0).
Version 9 is due for public release towards the start of autumn, and it will be gradually rolled out across different manufacturer handsets over a six-month period.
Each .0 version represents an evolutionary leap from its predecessor, often with a redesigned user interface and improved notifications or operational efficiency.
Not since 2013’s KitKat has an Android update been given its own designation.
What’s the market share between the Android generations?
Recent research has indicated one in 330 Android phones still runs version 2.3.3 – 2011’s Gingerbread.
These devices still function as mobile phones, offering compatibility with Gmail and video chat.
However, there will be many apps and functions that don’t work on an obsolete OS.
While 28 per cent of devices are running Nougat, the same proportion remains on Marshmallow and 24 per cent are still using Lollipop.
Conversely, only one per cent of Android handset owners are benefiting from Oreo’s adaptive icons and downloadable fonts.
This delay is partly because changes made to Android have to be implemented separately by each device manufacturer – Sony, Samsung, etc – throughout their product ranges.
Such revisions take time and cost money.
It’s not unheard of for a brand-new handset to contain a version of Android that’s two generations behind the newest one.
Does it really matter which Android version a phone uses?
Android security patches are still being retrospectively applied to older versions of the OS.
From a security perspective, even 2011’s Ice Cream Sandwich will be safe to use here in 2018.
Monthly security updates are downloaded onto your device overnight, quietly protecting it against evolving threats or newly-discovered flaws.
Providing you don’t take unnecessary risks (like rooting your device to access non-approved software), the last few generations of Android OS will keep your device operational and safe.
What they won’t do is offer you the latest design and functionalities.
For instance, Nougat introduced changes in how apps run in the background, better updates and more sophisticated encryption.
Newer versions are also better-equipped for modern phenomena like streaming music via Spotify, or watching live sports through a virtual private network (better known as a VPN).
Photo editing tools are more sophisticated than they used to be, given the immense popularity of Instagram and selfie cameras.
And the OK Google voice command system has been endlessly refined, making it a more serious alternative to Apple’s Siri virtual assistant.
If you really want the latest version of Android, buy a Google Pixel phone. It’s the only one that receives the newest OS straight after launch.
Otherwise, the last two generations of Android should run anything in the App store, function perfectly well and keep you safe from malicious threats.