Guest post by Eliot Van Buskirk of Evolver.fm.
Android recently increased its lead as the most-used smartphone operating system in the U.S. (50.9 percent, according to Comscore), but app developers have long prefered iOS to Android. That goes double for music app developers – blame Android’s problematic system mixer, latency that makes real-time audio apps like instruments and DJ mixers feel sluggish, and hardware variation that makes developing any Android app a challenge, as compared to Apple’s uniform device line that pretty much lets them write once and run on any iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch.
Android 4.1 — also called Jellybean, because Google nicknames its operating systems after sweets the same way Apple names its desktop systems after predatory cats — should solve many of these problems. Nothing in life is certain, but all indications are that these improvements could lead to something of a renaissance for music apps on Android, and at the very least, they will eventually solve many of the problems encountered by music app developers there, with positive implications for music fans.
Create Digital Music, which covers music-making technologies, has an excellent rundown of these changes, boiling them down to these points:
- Low latency audio playback capability, via a new software mixer and other API improvements.
- Latency targets below 10 ms. For now, low-latency playback (which would in turn impact round-trip latency) refers only to the Samsung Galaxy Nexus; other devices should get similar performance enhancements, but there’s no official word yet on which, or when.
- Strict maximum latency requirements for third-party vendors at some time in the future.
- Enhanced OS features, too: USB audio device support, multichannel audio (including via HDMI), recording features, and more.
As evidence, CDM mentions that Google’s Android 4.1 mentioned audio latency improvements during the official presentation of the OS (slide at right); during the developer sessions at Google I/O last week; and during a “fireside chat” with the development team. The KVR Audio community has additional details.
So, what does this mean for people who use music apps? Is Android as good as iOS now if you like to do cool things with music?
Unfortunately, this great news about audio and Android 4.1 will mean nothing for at least six months in most cases and in others, it’s utterly meaningless — at least until people upgrade to a new smartphone that can handle the new operating system.
Some Android devices will be able to install Android 4.1 “as early as this month,” according to InformationWeek, but many devices won’t ever be able to run it, and we don’t really know which are which, because none of the major Android manufacturers have divulged complete lists of which of their devices will have that capability. (Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S will be first.)
InformationWeek’s advice to users who want Android 4.1 is to buy a new device that runs Android 4.0, then wait for the upgrade. Making matters worse, only 10 percent of Android users have even caught up to Android 4.0.
Clearly, if you’re a music app developer looking to Android as a high-end music and audio platform, you don’t know how many Android people you’ll be able to hit with an app that takes advantage of all these big improvements in Android 4.1. Your best case scenario is that all Android 4.0 users upgrade to 4.1 — and even then, you would only be able to reach 10 percent or so of Android users. Meanwhile, the same app developed for iOS would work for nearly all customers on that platform.
On the surface, it looks like Android just caught up with — and possibly even leapfrogged — Apple’s iOS as the best mobile operating system in the world. It’s already the most popular one in the states.
In reality, in light of the complexity of rolling out this new operating system among all the makes, models, and manufacturers on the Android side, the simplicity of Apple’s platform will continue to make it more attractive to app developers looking to target music fans and music makers who are prepared to spend money on apps.