Android’s handicap

Tony Bradley
11 November, 2011
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Android is the leading smartphone platform with a diverse array of devices available from a variety of manufacturers, and from virtually every wireless carrier. As capable as the Android OS might be, though, its diversity is also one of its greatest handicaps.

Google recently unveiled the next major release of Android: Android 4.0 ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’. The latest iteration of Android combines the features and capabilities of the Android 2.3 ‘Gingerbread’ OS for smartphones, and Android 3.0 ‘Honeycomb’ OS for tablets into an integrated OS that serves both types of devices simultaneously.

‘Ice Cream Sandwich’ will soon be available on the flagship Samsung Galaxy Nexus samrtphone. If you don’t rush out to get the Galaxy Nexus, though, it is a guessing game when you might be able to get an Android 4.0 update for your existing Android smartphone or tablet…or if you ever will at all. That is the problem with Android.

Motorola’s latest Android phone – the Droid Razr – began pre-order in the US last week and will ship to customers sometime during the first half of November. When users receive this cutting edge device, it will already be obsolete because it is built on Android 2.3.5 – a variant of last year’s ‘Gingerbread’ release. Motorola promises that the Droid Razr will be updated to ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’ in the first half of 2012. Woo hoo?

Meanwhile, owners of the initial Android showcase phone, the Google Nexus One, are just out of luck. Google has already announced that the Nexus One hardware is ‘too old’ and the device will not be updated to Android 4.0.

It is a problem that plagues all Android devices. A chart from illustrates the Android smartphone models that have been released in the United States, and how far behind most of them are in relation to the current Android release.

Compare the Android update history with iOS. The iPhone 3GS was initially launched in June of 2009. It is more than two years old, yet when iOS 5 was released it was immediately available for download for the iPhone 3GS, as well as the iPhone 4. While it took more than six months for ‘Gingerbread’ to be deployed on a statistically significant segment of Android devices, when Apple updates iOS it generally has 90-plus percent penetration in a matter of days.

I have a Motorola Xoom tablet running ‘Honeycomb’ – Android 3.2.1 to be exact. The Xoom is one of the standard-bearers of what Android tablets are supposed to be capable of. When ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’ is released for the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, I would expect to be able to immediately download the new OS for my Xoom as well. I won’t hold my breath.

The reality is that I will be lucky to get ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’ on my Xoom in the next six months. Meanwhile, my iPhone from April of 2010 and my iPad 2 are both happily running the iOS 5 update that came out a couple weeks ago.

Answering the question of why Android devices take so long to get the latest update, or don’t get the update at all, the post explains, “Obviously a big part of the problem is that Android has to go from Google to the phone manufacturers to the carriers to the devices, whereas iOS just goes from Apple directly to devices.”

Vendors often claim – as Google has with the Nexus One – that the older hardware just can’t keep up with the newer Android OS. The post goes on to point out, though, that the hacker community often ports the latest OS to these devices just fine, so that argument seems to be invalid in at least some cases.

There is no denying that hardware eventually becomes obsolete, and that some older devices truly lack the horsepower and capabilities that the newer Android OS demands. On the Apple side of the fence, there are still legacy models that are no longer supported as well. It’s just that they are three years or so old – not devices that were sold as cutting edge, flagship smartphones a few months ago.

Google, Android device manufacturers, and wireless carriers all need to work together to implement a more streamlined system to get the latest updates out to devices faster, and to create a more predictable environment where users can be confident that the cream-of-the-crop smartphone or tablet they are investing in won’t be rendered obsolete for six months or more while it waits to catch up…just in time for the next release of Android to put it two steps behind again.

One Comment

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  1. Jay says:

    While diversity is one of Android’s problems, it’s easily it’s greatest strength. The varying sizes, features, and most importantly – price points, are what make Android, Android. Android is not iOS, nor do we want it to be.

    The fact is, the majority of users out there don’t use their Android phone or iPhone for much bar communication and listening to music.

    Updates ultimately provide one feature – new api’s which can be hooked into by devs. That’s the main offering. And the majority of people simply don’t utilise apps enough to warrant an update on many phones. It’s only that we’re in geek circles that seem to care. The general person doesn’t care for updates. They simply aren’t worried.

    Android is a great OS and provides a great user experience at a whole variety at price levels. It would be insane to expect device manufacturers to update all their phones including their budget phones, because there would be little reward for doing so. The inherit structure on how Android works – being software is made by one, then seeded to manufacturers, means the iOS method of updates could never work, nor would we want them too. It would just remove the very thing that makes it what it is – choice. We don’t want shared hardware to make things easy to update – we want the choice.

    While its great that Apple users can all update together, if that functionality wasn’t there, many users would still buy the iPhone, because it’s an iPhone and their friends have one.

    The great thing about Android is choice. You are forgetting that the Nexus series of phones is the iPhone of the Android world – they get the updates first (for around 2 years). You can’t expect a manufacturer to support something longer than that. Most users of the Nexus One have moved on to bigger and better things. It’s a completely different user base. Android geeks are like the PC gamers of the PC world. They always want the next best thing. There is no point updating if the people that would have cared are now on a new phone, while the people still with it don’t care.

    PS. The Xoom has been confirmed to get ICS in the first 6 weeks of he source release. Not 6 months.

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