Amid flashy demos of futuristic Android features and current-day music and movie services was perhaps the most important thing Google (NSDQ: GOOG) announced Tuesday related to Android: the formation of a group of key partners that will attempt to figure out how to give Android users and developers a more predictable schedule for when new operating system releases will actually hit phones.
Ten of the most important Android partners in the world– Verizon, HTC, Samsung, Sprint (NYSE: S), Sony (NYSE: SNE) Ericsson (NSDQ: ERIC), LG (SEO: 066570), T-Mobile, Vodafone (NYSE: VOD), Motorola (NYSE: MMI) and AT&T–are joining together with Google to work on the problem, which helps contribute to Android fragmentation as well as frustration among consumers who don’t understand why they can’t run the cool new thing Google just announced. One goal has already been reached: the group has agreed that Android phones released after today by the partners will be eligible for software updates 18 months into the future: hardware permitting, of course.
However, “we don’t have the answers yet,” admitted Andy Rubin, head of the Android project at Google, when it comes to the second part: how quickly new Android software will reach phones. Later in an interview with mocoNews, Hiroshi Lockheimer, director of engineering for Android, said the group had only come together over the past few weeks after having informally discussed the issue in smaller groups for some time.
The problem is this: wireless carriers often require any new software that will run on its network pass certain tests, and since so many different hardware makers use a more-or-less custom version of Android, those tests can be a complicated process. Add to that the pace at which different handset makers are actually willing to adopt new Android features that might force them to change their custom implementations: some want the latest and greatest as soon as possible, while others are more conservative. “There’s a pretty complex flow of events before something gets OTA’d (delivered over-the-air) to the user,” Lockheimer said.
As a result, new Android releases can take seemingly forever to reach consumers: Android 2.2, released last year at Google I/O, took nearly six months before it was running on more than half of all Android devices. And Android users who purchased a Samsung phone on Verizon’s network often don’t understand why their friend who bought a Motorola phone on AT&T’s network got their updates weeks ago.
None of those problems are going to go away overnight, Lockheimer said, but Google wants to at least have discussions about the issues in hopes of coming up with guidelines for approaching software updates, and suggested that the industry recognizes the frustration in both the industry and in the retail store. “It was very apparent they all wanted to have this conversation, they just didn’t know how to do it,” Lockheimer said, pointing out that Google is the common friend that all those companies share.
All of this is talk, however, until the group actually produces some details of how a more cohesive update strategy will work in practice. Lockheimer also said that Google and the partners are thinking about ways that such handsets might be branded or marketed so that users and developers know which phones are participating on the program.
It’s just another part of the tricky balance Google is forever trying to walk when it comes to Android. It needs to let Android partners control their own destiny to a certain degree in order to get support for the platform, but it also needs to rein in the worst excesses of its partners to ensure application compatibility and minimum quality standards. This initiative might explain some of the grumbling that surfaced a month or so ago about Google wanting to exert more control over Android, right around the time these talks were taking place.
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