Samsung, you’re doing it wrong with Android 4.0

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The second best-selling Samsung smartphone in history won’t officially see an upgrade to Android 4.0, leaving owners to decide between buying a newer phone, sticking with Android 2.3 or hacking on a custom build of Google’s latest mobile operating system. The reason Samsung won’t be offering such an upgrade? According to Samsung Tomorrow by way of The Verge, Samsung’s own customize TouchWiz user interface is the answer, which sounds more like a lame excuse instead of a valid explanation.

Samsung’s Galaxy Tab — a 7-inch slate I’ve been using daily for more than a year now — is also on the “won’t see Android 4.0″ list, says the Samsung Tomorrow blog. I can understand we’re looking at a smartphone and a tablet that debuted in 2010, and there’s a limited shelf life for future updates on mobile devices. What I don’t understand, nor accept really, is that the issue is Samsung’s user interface software. Even worse, I think Samsung is shooting itself in the foot. Here’s why.

  • You have to treat current customers well. On one hand, I can see Samsung’s stance if it chooses not to bring Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) to these older devices. From a financial standpoint, those handsets and tablets are already sold, and Samsung has earned all the income it’s going to from the sale of such devices. To bring Android 4.0 to the Galaxy S and Galaxy Tab, the company would have to invest time, effort and money to deliver the software. It has no financial incentive to do so. But customers don’t care about that, and could decide to buy a competing product if they feel slighted.
  • Software add-ons should never stop product advances. Some people like TouchWiz and some don’t. The same could be said for HTC’s Sense. But both are user interface add-ons atop Google Android. and neither should be the primary cause of stopping an Android update. HTC once fell into this same trap with Gingerbread on its Desire handset, and eventually compromised by removing some custom apps to make room for the update.
  • This isn’t a technical issue, it’s a bad decision. My first thought about this situation was that perhaps the Galaxy S and Galaxy Tab didn’t have the horsepower to run Android 4.0. Yet the Nexus S, made by Samsung, will get the ICS software  and it has very similar specifications to the Galaxy S in terms of memory, storage capacity and processor. And I’m willing to bet the Android enthusiast community will have a custom build of Android 4.0 for both devices, if it doesn’t already. How sad is it that external developers can make this happen, when Samsung can’t?

Will most people who own a Samsung Galaxy S or Galaxy Tab be in an uproar over this? Probably not, as they’ll likely never know about Samsung’s decision nor will they be thinking about Android 4.0 for devices that are 18 months old. But the decision sets a bad precedent going forward and suggests that Samsung is more concerned with selling newer hardware than supporting existing customers and their current devices.

My suggestion would be a compromise of sorts: Offer a stock version of Android 4.0 for these devices with the customer understanding and accepting the fact that the TouchWiz interface will no longer be available after the upgrade. Unless there’s a real technical reason for the lack of an Android 4.0 upgrade — something Samsung should make clear — this might be the best answer. It wouldn’t cost nearly as much for Samsung to develop and test, while consumers thinking Samsung has let them down might be more accepting of the situation.

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