Google Must Make Android Upgrade Worth Networks' While

Months after the release of Android 4.0, a.k.a Ice Cream Sandwich, network carriers such as AT&T and Verizon still ship all their phones with version 2.3 (Gingerbread). How can Google knock the carriers out of their complacency?

It's not generally appreciated, but the designs of new phone models are dictated, down to a detailed level, by the mobile networks. When Motorola or Samsung or LG makes a new phone for AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile, it is working with the network. The network is going to spend a lot of money subsidizing the purchase of those phones by their customers, so it's only fair it has a big say in the design.

But even though it's over five months since Google released version 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) of Android, designed for both tablets and phones, good luck finding a phone running Ice Cream Sandwich other than Samsung Galaxy Nexus--and that was co-developed by Samsung and Google. You can buy it from Verizon for a paltry (ahem) $300 and a two-year commitment, or $650 alone.

Clearly, the networks are uninterested in the newest versions of Android. Why? We've just reported that Google will co-brand a tablet and sell it direct, probably for the same reasons it co-branded the Galaxy Nexus with Samsung, but tablets aren't really the same thing. People buy a lot of iPads with 3G and 4G in them, but the vast majority of data traffic on tablets occurs over Wi-Fi, and people don't buy tablets from network providers the way they do phones.

And those network carriers are having no trouble at all selling Android phones running version 2.3, a.k.a. Gingerbread. Why should they make things complicated for themselves by moving up to 4.0 when they're getting all the market share they can handle with the old stuff? Consider the Samsung Galaxy Note available from AT&T for the same crazy pricing as the Galaxy Nexus. I played with this phone at CES in January and it's just gorgeous. The screen is immense, to the point where it's almost a tablet as well, and it would genuinely benefit from the more tablet-oriented Android 4.0. But it's shipping with Gingerbread.

In fact, when you look at the new features in Ice Cream Sandwich they're pretty cool, but they're all good for the user, not the provider. Looking at it in the most cynical light, there's nothing I see in there that creates new revenue opportunities for Verizon or AT&T.

This is why Google needs to do something to make it worthwhile to the network carriers to move to newer versions of Android. It's not going to happen until Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile find it in their interest.

There is another possible explanation: It might be that Ice Cream Sandwich is so new it hasn't made it through the test-and-approval cycles at the carriers. I'm a little skeptical of this, but it's possible.

What do you think Google and the carriers should do--if anything? Maybe they should do nothing and Gingerbread is fine.