Cellular data usage for tablets is up a marked 48% year on year in the first quarter of 2013, according to a data consumption report released by consumer market research firm NPD Group. This isn’t a huge surprise, considering people are increasingly shifting video consumption and web browsing to tablets, and given consumers use cellular when Wi-Fi, mobile hotspots, or tethering aren’t options.

A 48% jump in data usage may seem sizable, but it still only brings cellular usage for tablets to 12% of the total market in the US—meaning only three out of every twenty-five tablets are using cellular. Taken together with Consumer Electronics Association’s survey showing that 41 percent of the online US consumers polled already own a tablet and 72 percent plan to purchase one soon, this is an indication that there is significant market share for cellular data usage (and tablets) up for grabs.

What Does That Mean for Google’s Jelly Bean?

This past July, after much speculation and fanfare, Google finally released a new update to its Android operating system. Dubbed Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, it’s not available for everyone. Google has reserved the July release exclusively for its own line of products like the new Nexus 7. Reports, however, suggest that it will soon be available for widespread use.

Early chatter from the user community seems to indicate that Android 4.3 is making devices run faster, and in particular, Kevin C. Tofel reports that users of 2012 Nexus tablets are experiencing much better performance. On gigaom.com, Tofel highlights a specific software command in Android 4.3 called TRIM that works like “the old Disk Defragmenter on Microsoft Windows PCs which cleaned up the file system and put contiguous file bits in order on the hard drive to speed up I/O performance.”

Another interesting new feature of Jelly Bean, called App Ops, is what David Meyer calls a “privacy game-changer” because it allows the user to tailor the privacy controls for each application instead of having to agree to whatever (often times ludicrous) terms the developers create to make the app more profitable. Recent developments — such as the blowup over disclosures that the NSA has been gathering data on Americans — are serving to elevate the importance of user-privacy to the consumer, and it’s portentous to see Android 4.3 already addressing it.

The Growing Challenge for Google: Fragmentation

The list of great new features for Android 4.3 is lengthy (as is typically the case for new software iterations), and the feedback so far seems largely positive. This is seemingly great news for Google’s present and future users, except for one thing — many of them aren’t upgrading their operating systems. Many pundits have tackled the issue of fragmentation, but Alex Colon breaks it down simply on gigaom.com when he states that the fragmentation of Android products has tripled over the past year. Out of 682,000 devices surveyed, 34.1 percent were running operating systems that were over two years old. This is astonishing when compared to Apple, which has 95 percent of its devices updated to the latest version of its mobile operating system.

Unlike Apple, who runs iOS exclusively on the devices they develop and sell, Google has to try to make Android accessible to Samsung and LG and HTC and Huawei and every other device manufacturer on the planet (other than Apple). This poses monumental challenges for Google in getting users to upgrade to the latest version of their operating system, and ultimately poses a significant risk to the goal of gaining market share of tablet and mobile device sales if users become aware that they’re running on antiquated platforms. It also creates significant technical difficulties for Android app developers, and causes many apps to function poorly on some devices.

The Trend to Watch

If Google wants to capitalize on increased wifi and cellular usage for tablets (and ultimately mobile devices), they must find a way to dramatically reduce fragmentation by getting Android 4.3 — and subsequent iterations of Android — to their end users. At stake is the potential to make a big grab on the available market share for future tablet purchases and smartphone sales. Otherwise, the highly touted and desirable features that reviewers appreciate in Android 4.3 might fail to translate into the desired economic outcome.