AT&T preps Gingerbread update for 6 Android phones

Six of AT&T’s Google-powered handsets will soon see a software upgrade to Gingerbread, the latest version of Android for smartphones. Starting on Monday, owners of the Motorola Atrix 4G (s mmi) will be prompted to install the new Android 2.3 software. The software will be delivered over the air only when the phone is connected to a Wi-Fi network. On Monday AT&T (s t) said that any post-paid Android device introduced this year is expected to gain the Gingerbread software.

Although Google released Android 2.3 in December, handset makers and carriers alike have been slow to push the software. Only recently have new smartphones included Gingerbread out of the box and few have seen an upgrade to the new software. The situation of Android software releases arriving frequently has been a frustrating one: Consumers are buying smartphones without knowing if or when Android updates would arrive.

In May, Google publicly addressed the issues saying it would work with carriers and hardware makers to speed up the process and ensure that new hardware would see firmware updates for at least 18 months. Although I suspect most customers don’t even know which version of Android is on their phone, this illustrates the difference as compared to Apple’s iPhone (s aapl). Apple produces updates faster and has less reliance on carriers; instead, the company creates the update and begins pushing it directly to handsets immediately upon release.

Monday’s software news from AT&T is welcome then, and not just for the Atrix 4G (see our review here). These other handsets are also planned to see the upgrade to Android 2.3: HTC Inspire 4G, LG Phoenix, Pantech Crossover, as well as Samsung’s Captivate 4G and Infuse 4G. The Inspire 4G looks to be the next phone targeted for a Gingerbread update, with an August release for the software update. Owners of the Captivate may be most appreciate here as the Galaxy S for AT&T’s network is a year old.

Consumers may crave the latest operating system version on their handset, but I’ve been running Gingerbread since January on my Google Nexus One. To be honest, Froyo or Android 2.2, offered far more features and performance gains. I’ve confirmed with AT&T that it is pushing out Android 2.3.4 but have yet to hear if that includes support for Google Talk video calling on smartphones with front-facing cameras; I have a note in to my contacts and will update if I hear back.

Regardless of that specific question, AT&T is moving forward with Android updates in a fresh, new public way. And that could eliminate consumer fears that their smartphones will be running outdated software for an indeterminate amount of time.

Update: My contact at AT&T has told me via email that for the Atrix 4G, the Android 2.3.4 upgrade will include support for Google Talk video over Wi-Fi networks.