Flashback: thanking Android Jelly Bean for the buttery interface and multimedia improvements

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As Google prepares to pull Android Jelly Bean back to the big yard in the cloud where it can play with the alphabetically smaller versions, we thought this would be a good time to look back on a well lived life.

Jelly Bean first arrived in 2012 with Android version 4.1, but the name would stick with two more smaller releases (4.2 and 4.3). Nine years is a long time for an operating system, especially in the mobile world. Even a desktop operating system like Windows 10 will only last for 10 years (it was introduced in 2015, and Microsoft will end extended support in 2025).

But before we talk about Jelly Bean, we need to set the stage. Android’s early interface promised if it was quite clumsy, which led to most manufacturers shining it – back then, skins were noticeably better than stock UI. Android 2.3 Gingerbread (which we covered in an earlier installment) was the latest version before a major split.

Android 3.0 Honeycomb introduced the Holo UI, but it was a version made exclusively for tablets. Months later version 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich brought Holo to the smaller screens of phones. The ICS version of Holo was more minimalist, while Honeycomb had a touch of futuristic flair.

Flashback: thanks Android Jelly Bean for the buttery interface and multimedia enhancements

Now that the appearance of the interface was decided, it was time to make it run smoothly – smooth as butter. This work was, of course, carried out under Project Butter. What it did was introduce triple buffering to the user interface and apply vsync timing to all drawing and animation. This got everything running with the screen’s refresh cycle, a standard of 60 Hertz at the time. To help the hardware, the JB CPU went into its highest performance state the moment you touched the screen, so the updated screen as soon as possible.

Another significant improvement was expandable messages. This allowed messages to contain more content than before, of course, but it also added a new feature – they could display up to three buttons, giving the user instant access to key actions. For example, a missed call message will allow you to call or send a message to the person who called you.

Jelly Bean also touched the home screen. It made it possible to view live wallpapers before they were used and it introduced sizes that could be changed.

Expandable messages with actions
Resized widgets that automatically rearrange

Expandable notifications with actions • Modifiable widgets that are automatically rearranged

Android Beam was introduced with 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, but this original version only used NFC to send links – to websites and even apps (with the link pointing to the Play Store). Jelly Bean added Bluetooth to the equation so you can also share photos, videos and other files.

Beam was interrupted with Android 10 and there is a battle for his throne. Google sees its fast part as a replacement, but it’s still not quite ready. For example, you cannot use it to share a file with a Windows or ChromeOS computer. Recently, a group of smartphone manufacturers have joined forces in the alternative reciprocal transfer alliance to unite the internal solutions they developed separately.

Flashback: thanks Android Jelly Bean for the buttery interface and multimedia enhancements

Smart App updates allowed the Play Store to deliver delta updates, that is, to transfer only the bits that switched between versions, instead of repeating data that the phone already has. On average (by Google calculations) this shrinkage is updated to 1/3 of a full download. Later this year, Google will make a big shift in how this works, by requiring App Bundles to be uploaded to the Play Store instead of APKs. These can shrink even the initial download of an app by skipping the parts that are not needed on a particular device.

Another change was to encrypt the assets of paid apps using device-specific keys. This made it harder to say, copy a game from one device to another.

Jelly Bean also significantly improved the audio support on Android, which hung after iOS. It added multi-channel audio support through HDMI ports, and AAC codec was also supported by default (including AAC 5.1 audio). Gap-less playback made phones much better music players, and the Media Router button provided a standardized way to direct the sound to the headphones or to Bluetooth receivers. This version also included USB audio support, which made it possible to connect external DACs.

All this and more came with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. It was followed by version 4.2 a few months later. It enhanced Project Butter with a faster hardware-accelerated 2D renderer that utilized the GPU.

4.2 also introduced lock screen widgets, which were popular for a while but have since gone out of favor. Daydream, an interactive screen saver mode, was also introduced and the change fell (the name was reused for Google’s now defunct VR platform).

Lock screen widgets
Project Daydream (screensaver)

Lockscreen widgets • Project Daydream (screensaver)

Some features held fast – 4.2 brought proper external display support. Earlier versions could only mirror the screen, the second iteration of JB allowed apps to handle each screen separately. This is the basis of desktop modes we see today. Wireless monitors were also supported using the Miracast standard. Sound was further enhanced with low latency sound support.

External screen support with presentation mode
External screen support with presentation mode

The entire Bluetooth stack was replaced and BlueZ was released in favor of an open source project developed by Google and Broadcom. This version introduced many more connectivity and security enhancements.

Brand new Bluetooth stack
Brand new Bluetooth stack

4.2 enhanced the camera with HDR support, an early step into computational photography, which continued to be the most important element of modern smartphone cameras (more important than even the sensor and lens).

The latest version of Jelly Bean, Android 4.3, arrived in 2013. It added support for Bluetooth Low Energy and Audio / Video Remote Control Profile 1.3. The graphics stack was also enhanced with OpenGL ES 3.0 support.

Perhaps most important of all was the addition of emoji support. They were pretty common black and white emojis (color was added with v4.4), but you can now switch the keyboard to emoji mode and avoid annoying letters and words in your messages. You can see Jelly Bean emojis here.

Flashback: thanks Android Jelly Bean for the buttery interface and multimedia enhancements

There were other changes as well. For example, v4.3 included a VP8 encoder as Google tried to move away from patented formats. All three incarnations of Jelly Bean also added step-by-step improvements to right-to-left (RTL) language.

Improved RTL support for interface and text input
Improved RTL support for interface and text input

Google stopped publishing distribution numbers for Android versions some time ago, but by 2019, all three versions of Jelly Bean had dropped to around 3% market share. The company said they now account for less than 1%, which is why it decided to stop updating Play Services to the older versions.

Android version distribution in mid-2019
Android version distribution in mid-2019

Here’s a little trivia – Jelly Bean was the last Android version to reach 50% of the market share. Despite Google’s hard work to simplify the update process for manufacturers, there is no Android version, as JB has managed to gain a majority stake.

In any case, devices running Jelly Bean can continue to work and even download apps from the Play Store, even if they do not see many (if any) updates to those apps.

Do you still have a working Jelly Bean device? Drop a line in the comments to tell us what it is and what you’re using it for – and maybe consider withdrawing it or at least flashing a newer version of Android.

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