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Why Android Needs To Pick Up The Update Pace, And Why The Time Is Right

There should be no doubt at this point: the world of Android is a turbulent, noisy, and at-times inscrutable tangle of interests. But the basics have stabilized quite a bit over the last year, and the Android community–if it can hang together–has a chance to prove that the platform is maturing by rewarding older customers with newer features.

Michael DeGusta of The Understatement posted an excellent infographic (that is, a truly useful one) this week showing just how poorly the Android community, namely Google (NSDQ: GOOG), phone makers, and carriers, have supported their early adopters with new versions of the software. Click through for the full graphic, but the stats are telling: of Android phones launched prior to June 2010, several of which are still under contract with their respective carriers, “12 of 18 only ran a current version of the OS for a matter of weeks or less” and “10 of 18 were at least two major versions behind well within their two year contract period.”

That’s an unfortunate byproduct of the breakneck pace that Google and the Android community set for themselves in order to try and catch up to Apple’s iOS. But it doesn’t really tell the full story of Android in late 2011, because it stops just short of taking into account the Android boom of late 2010 and into early 2011. That accounts for a huge proportion of the Android phones that are running relatively new operating system versions.

Current Landscape: According to Google, as of early October 83.4 percent of Android devices in use across the world are running either Froyo, Android version 2.2, or Gingerbread, Android version 2.3. Froyo is a year and a half old, and Gingerbread was announced in late 2010.

When Froyo was announced at Google I/O in 2010, Android had 13 percent of the U.S. smartphone market, as measured by operating system and according to Comscore (NSDQ: SCOR). Today, it has around 44 percent of that market, making it the leading mobile operating system.

DeGusta is right in pointing out how those who sustained Android in those early days have paid the price for taking the plunge, at least when it comes to software updates. But this is a much smaller percentage of the overall Android market than it would appear from his graphic.

Android was not the commercial success we now recognize before the release of Android 2.2 in fall 2010, and millions and millions of phones have been sold over the past 18 months with an operating system that is one generation behind Gingerbread, and two generations behind the Ice Cream Sandwich version that won’t become available for another few weeks.

iOS Comparisons: Life is certainly easier for those developing for Apple’s iOS platform, with its steady cadence of releases, uniform hardware, and control of the software update distribution process.

DeGusta argued:

OS developers, like Instapaper’s Marco Arment, waited patiently until just this month to raise their apps’ minimum requirement to the 11 month old iOS 4.2.1. They can do so knowing that it’s been well over 3 years since anyone bought an iPhone that couldn’t run that OS. If developers apply that same standard to Android, it will be at least 2015 before they can start requiring 2010’s Gingerbread OS.

That’s certainly more a more stable pace than afforded by the combination of Android’s convoluted update system and the wide variety of hardware that will run Android. Still, Android developers today can support 83 percent of the installed base by targeting an 18-month-old operating system that didn’t really start rolling out in earnest until the latter half of 2010 anyway.

Unfortunately for Android, that’s still not good enough: developers don’t want to alienate 17 percent of their potential users. But it’s the best position Android has ever been in, and the Android community has a chance to improve their uniformity if they move swiftly to Ice Cream Sandwich.

Council of Updates: If the Android community is truly interested in keeping Android competitive with iOS–which is hopefully among their priorities–they should ensure that the bulk of those phones currently running Android 2.2 or Android 2.3 find their way to Android 4.0, otherwise known as Ice Cream Sandwich. (For some weird reason Android 3.0 was picked as the name for the tablet-only version of Android; for smartphones, 4.0 is next in line to 2.3.)

Google wants this to happen. In an interview earlier this month with paidContent, Google’s Hiroshi Lockheimer said that older Android phones with single-core processors and displays less impressive than the Samsung Galaxy Nexus should be able to run Android 4.0 without problems.

The issue, as DeGusta cynically (but probably truthfully) pointed out, is that handset makers have little incentive to encourage older users to update their phones. They don’t control the development process for new software updates and need to differentiate their products from competitors, encouraging them to focus much more on the next phone around the corner as opposed to keeping current customers happy. It must also be noted that handset makers can have legitimate concerns over whether or not older handsets will be able to provide a good-enough experience running newer software.

This leaves the Android community at a bit of a crossroads. One of the most important announcements at Google I/O last May was the formation of a council of Android partners in hopes of coming to agreement on a way to speed up the update process for Android users. Nearly six months have come and gone with no word from that group as to whether or not it has actually figured anything out, and despite repeated inquiries Google continues to maintain a “stay tuned” message regarding this initiative.

Hanging Together Or Separately?: What a strange time to be involved with Android. It’s the most popular smartphone operating system in the world, yet it is racked with fear, uncertainty, and doubt, a fair amount of which is from its own making.

It’s going to be harder for Android makers to band together behind Google if they are wary about its intentions with regard to Motorola. Seemingly each day another Android vendor signs a patent-licensing deal with Microsoft, increasing their costs for adopting what was once seen as a free operating system. And developers continue to roll out their best and brightest ideas on iOS despite the market share disparity.

Yet should the Android community manage to find a way to collaborate, it’s poised to reward the users that made it into a household name with the same types of regular software updates they can expect from Apple with the purchase of a single phone. That could encourage them to stick with the platform as it gets prettier instead of wondering why there is such a fuss over the iPhone.

If this same industry is going to promote a business model that locks customers into two-year contracts with hefty termination penalties, it needs to find ways for its customers to find such a contract worth their while. Now that Android has matured, embracing a regular path of software updates isn’t just a luxury, it’s a necessity.

The good thing for Google and its partners is that so many of their customers are new. They’ll tolerate delays far better than the generation of Android early adopters stranded on older operating systems, but they won’t wait forever.

13 Responses to “Why Android Needs To Pick Up The Update Pace, And Why The Time Is Right”

  1. Jameslepable

    The is no fragmentation issue, I have owned two android devices (low end to middle end devices) and they worked perfectly, no bugs with the low end it got an upgrade to 2.1 and it went even better, but I wanted more, so when I tried CM7 for it. It was cool but it had 250mb of ram (low end device after all) so constantly rebooted but its was £60 can’t complain. But that’s just it that phone couldn’t handle a modded stripped down android gingerbread so I didn’t expect it to get official. but at 2.1 it was awesome. My new mid range device is at the current OS but I don’t expect ICS because its slow processor won’t handle it. It runs gingerbread just fine so why mess with that. Same reason I use XP everything works so I don’t need the new one just because its new. 

    And iFanboys can say that they have iOS 5 but unless you got iPhone 4s you ain’t getting siri. It was an app on the app store whom apple bought then pulled it and added it so you MUST get the new shinny thing for this app basically. That worked fine before hand on the old phone. Even iPad 2 which has same processor doesn’t have it. 

    The is no big problem with fragmentation of OS just some people want a higher number that is all. 

    And really, open source there search algorithms? they are the leading search engine for a reason. They change that algorithm daily and it is the best. The is no reason to open source it. It is a search company after all and has lots of open platforms. Chrome, android etc

  2. LarryVandemeer

    The Android update situation is just fine. Here Apple can’t even update its phone and all they got is 4 models and one manufacturer and one type of CPU design that they themselves produce. Yet the millions of iPhone1 users are stuck with iOS3 and the millions of iPhone3G users are stuck with iOS3 or a lobotomized iOS4, never to be able to upgrade to iOS5. Then you have the most popular Windows OS software in the world with millions running Windows XP, millions running Vista and millions running Windows 7 and soon Windows 8. That is the mother of all Fragmentations. Or Mac OS… millions more running about 10 different versions of the OS…. but you know what? IT DOES NOT MATTER. Cause if the OS runs the software you need, it’s fine. And 98% of all Android apps will run just fine with Android 2.1+… and 97.5% of the 190 million Androids out there are running 2.1+… and that’s more than I can say for Windows OS, Mac OS or for that matter the fascist 100% control of hardware and software of iOS. It is you Apple loving stock holding Apple friendly media folks that are making a bigger issues that this is. Google does not have to do a single thing than they already are doing. They are releasing the open source code so OEMs and an army of developers can get it and use it… FOR FREE…. How much it used to cost you to update Windows OS or Mac OS every time the last 10 years??? Now we are down to FREE OS updates…. and if you don’t see it from your OEM try
    They have a hell of a lot devices updated to the latest and greatest… and that’s a lot more than the 4 devices, that Apple with their $80 billion in cash that they got from people buying their junk devices, yet they can not update them ALL to the latest and greatest of their OS5.

  3. Blueglacia

    Here is a bit of psychological perspective on why fragmentation
    seems to matter less for Android buyers. For a buyer, iPhone has one model. A
    newer body is perceived generally as next iteration – a refresh, similar to a
    Honda Accord has 2008, 2009, 2010 models. A new car buyer does not choose to
    buy 2008 model in 2010.


    Android in my mind as a buyer does not refer to a specific
    car model. It refers to a different universe of choices – on every level. And
    new choices become available every month, not once a year.


    When I buy an android phone, I expect that I would update it
    by buying an entirely new body and software package next time, going from a
    Honda Accord to a Lexus LS400. Maybe a SUV next time.


    For me, the hardware+OS package upgrade cycle feels much
    more exciting and rewarding in the fast moving and diverse Android world. As a
    matter of fact, as a new phone owner, I like that feeling of having moved onto
    not only better but more unique body and soul. Otherwise, my new phone would be
    the same as everyone else’s 2 year old phone, only runs faster.


    As a result, I tend to think that Android buyers in general
    are tempted to upgrade the hardware more frequently than iPhone buyers would
    be. Neither is better or worse. Just different worlds.


    The OS upgrades on any given Android phone in the meantime,
    to me, feel optional. My “old” phone remains as effective as it was 6
    months ago and I don’t see much downside being almost two generations behind.
    The Android universe is evolving at breakneck speed, and I am more excited
    about my next Android purchase experience – a Lamborghini, this time. I like
    this type of fragmentation as long as the app developers do not have to work
    too hard to keep up with it. I believe, that is what ICS is supposed to

    • I think you’re right that that’s how Android works now. Speed was definitely the priority in the first few years. But I think over time that Android partners will want at some point to make customers perceive more value in the devices. One way to do that is by promising software upgrades over time.

      Don’t forget that this is also a security issue, something that iOS doesn’t have to worry about. Google and its partners can push out patches without a full release, but in general you’re the most secure when running on the latest version of software.

    • “When I buy an android phone, I expect that I would update it
      by buying an entirely new body

      For me, the hardware+OS package upgrade cycle feels much
      more exciting”

      You’re right, wanton waste is exciting. Well reasoned.

  4. Thomas Burke

    I was surprised to see DeGusta claim that the original iPhone runs ios4, much less 5. Then I read more of his blog posts and his agenda became clear, he purposely misleads. But your point is well taken, I would love to upgrade my G1 (running Froyo) to even a crippled ICS. If I had the original iPhone that upgrade wouldn’t even be conceivable, so to my eyes it is iPhone buyers who have paid a price.

  5. Seriously, this is a non issue. This is the iPhone fanboys last desperate attempt to produce bad media for Android. A phone lasts a couple of year at best, and you buy it for a set of features, that certainly won’t change with or without upgrades. If you are smart, you get HTC, as my EVO has gotten every upgrade. When I replace it, I’ll select a phone that has upgrade potential. It is always the low end phones that don’t get the upgrades, and if you $50 bucks for your phone, don’t expect the latest coolest fastest.

  6. fractured market, friends with android phones can’t update them because of wrong software versions or complexity, they are all switching to iPhones, esp now that the new one is out

    as a developer its a waste of time to code for these, the market doesn’t pay anything compared to iTunes, and the version tracking is all over the place, it works for some but doesn’t work for others, give me a break! 

    not to mention the fact malicious apps unsigned by the market can steal personal data or cause virus on your phone! Apple does have a walled garden but it works well and its secure! 

    and if Google was so “open” why don’t they release their search algorithms… 
    both companies have factories over in China, 
    but Google is the one fire walling search results for tinamen sq etc… 

    • sproketz

      Hi Rob,

      The numbers in the smartphone market don’t back up your assertions. iPhone users are actually switching to Android. The data in the field supports that. Android is now the #1 used smartphone OS with 44% market share vs. 31% for iPhone (Q2 2011). This trend is on the rise. iPhone shipment growth in Q2 2011 slowed to 9% from 15% a quarter earlier, while Android smartphone shipments increased 36% in Q2 2011, compared to 20% in Q1.

      The exponential growth of apps in the Android market does not support the argument that it is a waste of time to code for Android; instead, it strengthens the argument that developing for android is profitable and enjoyable for developers.

      If you are smart and don’t download iffy apps from the market, you’re not going to get a virus. This is just like the internet on your PC or Mac. Don’t use questionable content and you’ll be fine. Or, use a virus app. I don’t bother with virus apps because this problem is a red-herring.

      Google doesn’t release search algorithms for multiple reasons. 1) Other companies would use them to make search engines which would kinda undermine Google’s position as the leading search provider… 2) Spammers would exploit them to ruin your search experience.

      There is a lot of good data-backed information out there you can find with a few quick searches.  Unfortunately a lot of people choose to misinform the public to push their own personal agendas.

    • MicroNix

      @rob said: “fractured market, friends with android phones can’t update them because
      of wrong software versions or complexity, they are all switching to
      iPhones, esp now that the new one is out”

      Ok, so would you say the developer of PowerAMP which has over 500,000 unlock purchases at $4.99 each would say Android doesn’t pay?  A little bit of math shows this guy has already made over a million on this ONE app.  Of course he made an app that kicks and people want.  What was your app(s)?

      I also find the complete opposite of your statement regarding Android folks going to an iPhone.  Everyone I know personally either has purchased a Bionic or are waiting for the Nexus.  Why would they want to go to a company that takes an app that was available to current phones (SIRI), purchases it, and then makes you pay $200 for a new phone just to be able to use it again?  Hmm….

      iPhones are fractured now as well.  You can’t tell me for a minute that the original iPhone runs iOS 5, or that the 3G does.  The 3GS and iPhone 4 do but with features missing.  WHAT A MESS!  How can one know which iPhone gets what features????  OMG, a true disaster.

      •  Umm…Apple bought the company that wrote Siri, which means Apple owns the IP including patents and has hired the management and coders, at least for the short term, who worked to integrate it with the OS. It isn’t just about buying an app and slapping it on the flagship phone, though that might seem to be kind of shallow move that an android user would expect and appreciate. On the whole, Google has been just as avid about purchasing companies and their IP.

        “The 3GS and iPhone 4 do but with features missing.’

        The 3GS is slightly over two years old. Compare that to android support levels.

  7. sproketz

    I think everyone knows this can be done better. But the fact remains…. even on older android software you can still do more with Android than you can with an iPhone. So while you may not be up-to-date with the latest Android goodies, you’re still beating the latest iPhone feature set. This is probably why so many still stick to their Android phones despite the lack of updates.

    I look at the latest IOS “upgrade” as a major downgrade from any Android OS. I’d lose Google Maps GPS, automatic Wifi music sync with iTunes, custom MP3 decoders and multi band equalizers that offer superior sound and stereo widening effects, Adobe flash playback, better browsing features, Artificial Intelligence driven keyboards (or whatever keyboard I want), complete launcher customization, live wallpapers, highly useful home screen widgets, better youtube and google apps, the ability to access the phone’s file structure and my home network file structure and copy or stream wirelessly between them… the list goes on and on.

    Apple gets reliable updates, missing all the features I want. This makes Apple’s instant roll-out of updates a bit pointless to any Android user as a point of comparison. The entire point of an update is to improve the phone’s features. Most Android users see Apple’s instant updates as “oh yay! I just got updated to a new version of nothing I need!”

    3rd party manufacturers would do well to heed this following point however. Many Android user’s next phone will be a Google Nexus because it is stock android and can get quick updates.I love HTC to death but they’ve over customized the OS to the point that it takes too long to update. At this point it is a bigger competitive differentiator for a company to ship stock android than to go mucking it up with Samsung TouchWiz or Motorola Blur or whatever thing they came up with to make it take forever to bring the latest features to market. It’s a lot of expense and fancy stuff to build just to turn off a customer from buying your future products. The PC manufacturers understood this and kept windows pretty stock. The Android manufacturers need to learn this lesson as well. Sure add customizations, but keep them agile and separated from the core OS (like Go-Launcher for example).

    If Google is smart, after their purchase of Motorola Mobility they’ll make every single Motorola phone use stock android. This would force other 3rd parties to adopt a more agile methodology or always be a step behind Motorola and Google.

    Until then I’ll stick with pure Google phones until the third parties get their act together.