Zebra Enterprise Mobile Devices Will Be Transitioning Directly from Android™ 11 To Android 13. Here’s Why.

Our decision is driven by many factors, but mostly by our commitment to doing what’s best for our customers.

The Zebra MC9300 is used by a manufacturing worker
by Julie Johnson
February 10, 2022

This is the year of “10” for Zebra and Android™.  Over the past 10 years, we have released 10 major Android OS versions going back to Android “Gingerbread” in 2011. We have also shipped over 10 million Android devices.  Most recently, we were first to release enterprise-grade Android 11 (A11) devices on the Qualcomm SD660 chipset and made plans to take these devices to Android 14 (A14).   

Over the years we’ve learned that Android is a very dynamic environment and there are times when you need to adapt your strategy to meet customer requirements. Such is the case as we approach
Android 12. 

That is why we feel strongly that it is in the best interest of our customers to transition Zebra’s complete mobile computing portfolio, including forthcoming 5G and Wi-Fi 6 devices, directly from A11 to Android 13 (A13), essentially “skipping” Android 12 (A12).

Now, I’m sure some people have questions about this approach. So, Bruce Willins and I wanted to share the circumstances that led to this decision, which we did not make lightly:

Julie: We have always worked hard to avoid skipping an OS release, but I know in this instance, we felt that the transition from A11 to A13 was in the best interest of our customers. So, how would you summarize the factors that led us to make this call?

Bruce: Several Zebra customers plan to evaluate and begin rollout of new Zebra 5G and Wi-Fi 6 products in 2022. These products are based on recently released (Q4 2021) Qualcomm (QC) System-On-Chip (Soc) solutions. QC released these solutions on the Android 11 OS. Therefore, to meet our customers’ aggressive timeline requirements, we must also release on A11.

But accelerating customer access to new technologies such as 5G, Wi-Fi 6, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) is just one of the objectives we were trying to meet.

We also needed to…

1. minimize the amount of time between the Google OS open-source release to Zebra product availability (aka “OS release Time” or “OSRT”),

2. maintain a high degree of OS release synchronization across our product portfolio, and

3. avoid overwhelming our customers with a rapid succession of OS releases

Julie: And those last three things would not have been possible without skipping A12 and going straight to A13, right?

Bruce: That’s right. The challenge is that A11 released in October 2020 – that’s quite some time back. Introducing a product in 2022 on A11 goes against Zebra’s goal to keep the time from an OS open-source release to Zebra product release to under 12 months. So, the question we had to then answer is, “how do we ‘catch-up’ so that future OS releases are back under the 12-month release window?”

Julie: So, by skipping 12, we’re able to minimize the gap from Google OS open source to Zebra product availability for future OS releases, such as A13.

Bruce: Yes. But, as many will probably argue, that wasn’t our only option. We actually had a choice to either:

1. do a rapid succession of OS releases, or

2. transition directly from A11 to A13.

Option 1 forces customers to rapidly migrate from release to release, which is disruptive to their businesses and imposes a significant resource burden. Option 2 has no such impact. It does, however, require customers to forgo any A12 features in anticipation of A13. This necessitated a very careful look at the features in A12. Upon further analysis of Google’s changes, we confirmed there were no major enterprise feature additions in A12 that would impact the user experience and/or customers’ operations.

Equipped with this information and the various options at hand, we conducted interviews with internal staff, partners, and customers – including end-users – to get their input.  They overwhelmingly agreed that the best option was to go directly from A11 to A13. So, that’s what we’re going to do.

Julie: I know some customers are currently developing applications for A12 and will be looking to us for guidance on what to do next. I believe you have been speaking to a few already. Have they expressed concern about this decision in terms of the user experience or operational impact?

Bruce: First and foremost, we want to avoid having customers develop their applications for A12 in anticipation of an A12 release. As you noted, we realize that some customers may have already started on A12. And these customers ultimately have two options: rollback their changes to A11 or push out their release until A13 becomes available. We aren’t making a universal recommendation here because each customer must make the decision on what to do based on their business objectives and current situation.  

But I do want to make one comment about Android in general that could help some customers when weighing these two options: as of December 2021, 65% of all consumer and enterprise Android devices in the world were still running either A10 or an earlier Android OS version. Many have yet to upgrade to A11, much less A12. So, when considering which OS release or API level you should target for Android, it’s important to consider what OS releases are running on currently fielded Android devices in addition to thinking about future needs.  

Julie: Of course, when you look at a calendar and see how close we are to rolling out A13 across Zebra’s portfolio, it starts to become clear why it was smarter to make the transition straight from A11 to A13.

Bruce: You’re right. All Zebra devices on the SD660 platform, along with our new WLAN products, will receive A13 support starting in March 2023. We will release A13 for WAN products in a rolling manner between May-July 2023. So, about 12-18 months from now. But when you consider that it can take 7-9 months to validate a new OS, customers would have essentially rolled out A12 and then, a few months later, had to start the process all over again to upgrade to A13.

Julie: Plus, as you mentioned, there were no overly compelling enterprise features in A12 as compared to A11. So, it’s possible all that effort to rush to A12 and then immediately transition to A13 would not have necessarily been worth it for our customers.

Bruce: That’s right. Though Google does technically list three enterprise changes for company-owned devices such as the ones our customers buy from Zebra, one of them – USB disablement – is already supported on Zebra devices, so customers will be covered there. The other two state that:

1. Company-owned devices with a work profile can limit the input methods used in the personal profile to allow only system input methods.

2. In Android 12 you can create a delegation scope. Enable and collect security log events by calling setDelegatedScopes() and passing DELEGATION_SECURITY_LOGGGING. Security logging helps organizations gather usage data from devices that can be parsed and programmatically evaluated for malicious or risky behavior. Delegate apps can enable security logging, verify that logging is enabled, and retrieve the security logs.

And there are several online resources available describing all A11 to A12 changes for those who want to dig in more:

1. Overall – https://developer.android.com/about/versions/12

2. Enterprise – https://developer.android.com/work/versions/android-12

3. Features & API – https://developer.android.com/about/versions/12/features

4. API Differences – https://developer.android.com/sdk/api_diff/s-dp1/change

Julie: I’m sure customers will continue to receive LifeGuard™ support for A11 devices until the A13 update occurs, right?

Bruce: Yes. As per our LifeGuard policy, an OS receives monthly security updates until a newer release is launched or Google security support ends. Google Security support for A11 is not expected to end until 2024, by which time A13 will be available. Thus, customers will continue to receive monthly updates on A11 until the A13 release, at which time A11 will get quarterly updates during its one-year OS transition period.

Julie: I would imagine all Zebra competitors are in a similar situation, right? There really isn’t something special that others could do from an engineering perspective to avoid similar circumstances.

Bruce: Yes, competitors using the same Qualcomm SoC face a comparable challenge: release on the A11 OS and “catch-up” on subsequent releases or delay their new products and go directly from Android 10 to A12, thereby “skipping” A11. Many competitors have not yet released A11 products like we have.

Julie: Still, customers look to Zebra to maintain a relatively high degree of portfolio synchronization with respect to the OS versions and release timing. So, can you explain a bit more how this decision will impact our OS release synchronization, regardless of what competitors decide to do?

Bruce: Absolutely. As previously stated, several of our new products will hit the market on A11 around Q2 of this year. Our deployed SD660 products are currently on A11 and are due for an OS upgrade to A12 around Q3 2022. So, if we were to transition to A12 in accordance with a “normal” OS update schedule, in this scenario, the portfolio would be split. One half would be released on A11 and the other half on A12 within a span of one quarter. Though an option, it doesn’t really benefit anyone.

In fact, it puts us in a similar position as described earlier: we either accelerate OS releases – pushing out multiple OS versions in rapid succession – or we maintain the SD660 products on A11 in conjunction with our new products and transition the entire portfolio to A13. Again, the latter is the better option for customers and even partners supporting our customers.

Julie: I know we have committed to Android OS for the next several years, and our current A11 devices will be fully supported through Android 14. But I’m sure customers want to know if this “skip” scenario could happen again in the future. What can you tell us today based on the discussions the engineering team is having internally, with Qualcomm and with Google?

Bruce: Though not impossible, the likelihood of this situation occurring again in the future is highly improbable. Our decision to transition from A11 to A13 reflects the confluence of several events, including the introduction of new SoCs into the Zebra portfolio, aggressive customer rollout requirements for several new key technologies, and Qualcomm’s production release of new SoCs on a mature OS (A11). Qualcomm is aware of the challenges resulting from a new SoC being released on a mature OS, and we are working with them to avoid this in future SoC releases. 

With regard to A14, we continue to follow Qualcomm’s commitment to support A14 on SD660 and future SoCs.

Julie: To recap, launching our products on A11 is the only option to meet our customers’ aggressive timelines for rolling out new 5G/Wi-Fi 6/AI/ML products in 2022. And, going forward, the optimal path to reduce the time from OS open source to Zebra product-release, and to best align OS releases across the complete Zebra portfolio, is to transition direction from A11 to A13.

Bruce: You’ve got it.

Julie: So, all in all, this decision will enable us to better meet customers’ needs now and in the future.

Bruce: That’s exactly right. As you have said before, everything we’re doing today is to protect customers’ investments in Zebra Android mobility solutions for many years to come.

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Editor’s Note:

If you have further questions about Zebra’s Android strategy or want to understand how the decision to move from A11 to A13 could impact your organization’s Android migration roadmap, please reach out to your Zebra representative.

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Related Resources:

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Julie Johnson
Julie Johnson has been a global technology business leader for almost 30 years, creating growth and value in product lines and new market segments for the consumer electronics, enterprise, and Fintech/payment markets. She has combined an awareness of customer needs and technology proficiency with passion and recognized leadership, delivering growth in highly competitive markets. Currently, as Vice President of Global Product Management and Portfolio for Zebra Technologies’ $2.1B Mobile Computing business, Julie creates and delivers Android and Windows hardware, software, and cloud-based SaaS solutions to retail, field mobility, warehouse, healthcare, and government channels globally, providing visibility and intelligent collaboration across enterprise employees. She is developing computer vision and augmented reality solutions for warehouse, retail, and field mobility customers.
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