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Upcoming Android update Ice Cream Sandwich means devs have to rework Honeycomb apps

by Phil Hornshaw

The next version of Google’s Android operating system, code named Ice Cream Sandwich, is expected to be available later this fall, and it’s going to have a big impact on Android as we know it.

Google intends for Ice Cream Sandwich to go a long way toward dealing with the “fragmentation” issue that has so long been a problem for Android users and developers. Fragmentation refers to the trouble Android has with allowing lots of carriers to make lots of devices that use the software. Whenever a device maker or a carrier grabs the open-source Android to use on a device, they alter it to work with that device. Since there’s no standard for screen size, for example, developers have to make apps specifically tailored to work on each new device that’s different from the last one.

That leads to the Android Market we have now, filled with apps that are compatible with some devices and not others. Then there’s Honeycomb, the Android version that’s built specifically for tablets. Apps built for the larger screens of Honeycomb devices generally aren’t always compatible with smartphones, for example.

Well, at least for now.

Google is requiring developers to rework their apps so they are compatible with both tablets and smartphones when Ice Cream Sandwich starts rolling out, according to a story from Engadget. Since apps will be compatible across both kinds of devices on the same operating system, developers have only one choice: optimize their tablet apps for smartphone screens to avoid those apps looking awful on the smaller devices (and likely leading to a flood of bad reviews followed by a drop in sales), or disable the downloads for smaller devices until compatible versions of the apps can be built.

The way Android works means that the software won’t automatically preclude users from downloading older Honeycomb apps that won’t work on Ice Cream Sandwich devices, as well. The burden will be on developers to make sure their apps work or to stop users from downloading them.

It’ll likely be a lot of work for developers, but Google is already offering help, according to a story from Ars Technica. There’s not even a software development kit available for Ice Cream Sandwich yet, but Google has already created some technical documents to help developers get ready to transition to the new version of the operating system.

On the plus side, while older Honeycomb apps and their developers might have troubles, it seems Google is making things easier on developers making apps specifically for ICS. The guide documents suggest that using ICS to create apps will help developers adapt them to both tablet and smartphone screens without a significant investment in the alterations, unlike what might be happening for Honeycomb apps.

It’s likely there will be some growing pains in the ICS transition, especially from what we’re seeing in these reports, but it seems the overall changes with the new version of Android will be worth it, both for users and developers. It may take a bit for apps to get sorted out after ICS’ expected October or November release, though.