Android system updates have been a contentious issue for as long as the platform has existed on more than one device. The newest system available from Google, Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, was announced in October, and Google released the code to its manufacturer partners in November. So far, only one smartphone--the Galaxy Nexus--is shipped with Android 4.0 on board.
Motorola has brought a number of new smartphones in the last few months to market, including the Droid Razr, Razr Maxx, and Droid 4. All three phones, sold by Verizon Wireless, were sold with the promise that they'd be updated from Android 2.3 Gingerbread to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.
According to Motorola, those updates won't arrive until the third quarter of this year.
The company provided an update to its update schedule on Wednesday, and the outlook is bleak. The vast majority of Motorola's Android smartphones are looking at a four- to nine-month wait for the latest system software to become available. In the meantime, smartphone makers will begin to bring Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich smartphones to market and they'll be in numerous supply by the time the third quarter comes around.
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Other manufacturers, notably HTC and Sony, have committed to slightly less awful time frames for updating their devices to Android 4.0, but we're still looking at months and not weeks before those updates show up.
The pattern is repeating. The same thing happened when Android Gingerbread arrived in December 2010. Smartphone makers promised to update Android 2.2 devices to Android 2.3. Guess what, those updates are still being delivered 14 months later. You can bet the bulk of Android phones that ship during the first half of 2012 with Android 2.3 won't see Android 4.0 until late in 2012 the earliest.
Why does this take so long? As Motorola explains, the process is not a simple one. First, it has to decide exactly what devices are going to be updated, evaluate whether they can be updated, and then make the necessary plans to devote the resources to make it happen. Only then do developers get to work writing the code. Now, the code needs to be tweaked for different screen sizes and resolutions, for different processors and baseband radios, for different chip makers, and on and on.
Once the code is complete, it goes to wireless network operators for testing. This step in the process can take months. Only after carrier testing is complete is the software offered to customers. The whole process, from start to finish, can take three to six or more months, and, according to hardware makers, can cost almost as much as developing the original system for the device.
I have to ask, why the hell bother at all?
Don't get me wrong, I want the latest and greatest system software on my phone, too. But considering all the time and resources it costs the manufacturers--which could otherwise be spent on developing new products--the effort hardly seems worth it. Moreover, by the time the updates are available, the devices and even the software itself has been outdated by newer, better stuff.
The Android update model is clearly broken. It doesn't serve anyone: not the handset makers, not the carriers, and least of all not the owners of Android devices who are stuck waiting ages for the updates to arrive.
Although I'd argue that every smartphone deserves the best and newest software, the idea has its practical limitations. We appear to have reached them.
I say bag the whole system-level update thing. Device makers and carriers do need to provide maintenance and security updates to keep smartphones running their best and safest, but I think smartphone owners need to simply get used to the idea of owning outdated software. If you want the brand-newest mobile platform, buy a device that has it installed from the get-go. Otherwise, don't get upset if it is almost a year before your device is updated.
The other alternative: Google needs to devise a way so core system updates can be provided independently of manufacturer and carrier control.
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