Blog Post

Want Android 4.0 on your phone? Move from the U.S.

Four months after the introduction of Google Android 4.0(s goog), handset makers are starting to update older phones. The software version, known as Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), currently ships on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus in the U.S. on Verizon’s(s vz) network; all other Android phones run on the older Gingerbread, or Android 2.3. Samsung and Motorola(s mmi) recently announced upgrade plans, and the U.S. is low on both lists.

On Tuesday, Samsung made good on a prior promise to deliver Android 4.0 sometime in March. ICS for the Galaxy SII handset, Samsung’s top seller to date, is now available in Poland, Hungary, Sweden and Korea. The company says other markets should expect a gradual rollout but offers no specifics as to which markets are next. Additionally, Samsung says the next devices to see the update will be the Galaxy Note and Galaxy SII LTE smartphones along with the Galaxy Tab 8.9 and 10.1 tablets.

A few weeks ago, Motorola created a web page to explain the Android upgrade status for all of its devices, along with the four phases used to delivery the software updates. According to that web page, I found, via the Android Guys blog, that the Atrix 4G, Atrix 2 and Photon 4G are the only U.S.-based handsets currently in “Development,” or the second stage. All other phones — the Razr, Razr Maxx, Droid 4 and Bionic — are still in the first stage, sadly dubbed “Evaluation and Planning”. The international version of the Razr, however, is already in development.

I find this approach odd. (And just to cut off any questions of bias, since I am based in the U.S., the topic doesn’t affect me since I bought a Galaxy Nexus with Android 4.0 in November.) In terms of smartphone penetration, the U.S. is among the highest in the world, meaning a large percentage of our population has a smartphone, many of which are Android powered. Wouldn’t these companies get the most “bang for the buck” with U.S. updates?

Perhaps the reason for the lack of U.S.-focus has to do with our carriers. My colleague Kevin Fitchard suggested that it may take the handset makers longer to build the updates for U.S. phones because of the carrier software that requires integration. That sounds plausible, if not disappointing. I’ll have to rely on our overseas readers to tell me whether or not carriers there include their own software on handsets.

Could it be the vast array of hardware options that is holding up the software upgrades? That’s what a Motorola exec recently suggested, and while I see merit in that argument, it doesn’t explain why overseas models are getting upgrades prior to U.S. models. The same hardware components are generally used and aren’t specific to different countries, except in the case of different network technologies. Maybe it’s the U.S.’s move to LTE? Again, that’s doubtful, in my opinion.

For now then, there will be few changes for devices in the U.S., unfortunately — although HTC Sensation owners can take some solace as their update is due out this month. The rest of us will just have to move to Europe, Asia or some other country!

20 Responses to “Want Android 4.0 on your phone? Move from the U.S.”

  1. Blame it on US Carriers, they are blocking ICS for older phone that was Subs are force to buy the latest phones. My advice only by Google experience phones (Nexus Series).
    Boo Booo for the carriers

  2. the way Google is (not) handling all this mess is pathetic. just because manufacture can customize the overlay interface doesn’t mean they can control how the software delivery work. Windows have come with bloatware for all its existence, yet the software update come directly from Microsoft. why on earth Google is letting the manufacture, and worse, carrier to carry out the update is beyond ridiculous. Google will NEVER control the user experience this way. they have to take over the core of the software experience. manufacture/carrier can customize all they want, but they can add those “bonus” crap in the form of software update that’s separate from the core OS. if only Google force them to.

  3. David McCormack

    Implicit in both the headline of this article and the text proper is an assumption that the reader is in the US. There are a heck of a lot more English speakers living outside the US than there are within. Given that the Gigaom family purports to be a tech news network rather than just a specifically US tech news network, you really should try to be more cognisant of your readership. Sorry for the whinge – I love your work.

    • David, I sincerely appreciate the constructive criticism; getting my head out of the US-centric perspective is something I have to keep reminding myself, so I love when the readers remind me that I’m slacking in that effort! Thx!

  4. I’d say it is because the US is so important for device makers that updates are deployed there later. For me, this has always bordered on the inconcievable, but it’s probably true most users don’t really care about running the latest software — they will be annoyed by updates that introduce bugs though. Introducing new updates on marginal markets is probably just part of the quality testing process.

  5. tim jones

    The US carriers aren’t updating because Americans don’t care; carriers aren’t getting grief about updating from most people. As long as people can talk, text, email, get on Facebook, take pictures, they can live with their phones. Once it’s time to renew their contract, that’s when Americans look to see if they can get a better subsidized phone. Geeks who care about updating, rooted the minute they got their phones. As for other countries where you pay full price for phones, people make sure they get the best bang for the euro/pesos/etc. from their phones.

  6. Will Fowler

    Look at some of the direct links from Motorola’s update status page. Pages and pages of people posting on forums saying things like “Motorola just lost a 20+ year customer” and things like that. Sad to say I’m in that boat, never getting another Motorola phone after my stupid Devour and I’ve already upgraded to Samsung’s Stratosphere.

  7. Jamie Arellano

    It is in the carriers best interest not to updated the software at all. Security fixes are really the only thing that they would do if it was their choice. Think about it. If your phone is a bargain phone that is purchased for $100 it is likely 1year old technology. After the two year contract is up it is three year old tech. By not updating the software there is much more of a gap in performance from hardware year over year. If the software gets updated to run the latest the incentive to buy a new phone when the contract is up becomes less of a priority. Not updating the software is a money making ploy by the mobile carriers.

    • Exactly! It is *because* the US has the greatest smartphone penetration they would be the lowest on the priority list. More people have purchased and will continue to purchase smartphones. Therefore, they make money when those people upgrade to new hardware. Carriers *AND* handset makers do not have an economic incentive to update software (unless it’s a security issue). I would also hypothesize that in other countries where there are less subsidies for phones, the onus then lies more with hardware manufacturers. And because there are less subsidies, there are less hardware upgrades. Customer satisfaction is more paramount, then, to get repeat business.

  8. henchan

    This article contains a strain of implicit US exceptionalism.
    Considering USA as just one of around a hundred countries where Android is deployed, instead of as a counter-point to some RoW straw-man, it is inevitable that some markets will move faster than others.
    There are surely many factors involved, but it is by no means obvious that size of market is a positive determinant of deployment speed.

  9. I just got off the phone with Sprint. I talked to 4 different reps and they all say the same thing. “We are currently testing the software to ensure it will work with our network and to avoid the problems that are currently with the ICS software. The update will be pushed out very soon and we will update the Sprint Community on our website as soon as it becomes available.” I was then told and guaranteed that the Nexus S 4G will be upgraded and if it doesn’t I will be eligible for a free upgrade of my choice for my troubles. Either way we win.

  10. THIS! I bought the Nexus One and then the Nexus S because they didn’t get in the way of any carrier holding back my update. Lo and behold, the Nexus S still is stuck on 2.3 and Google won’t say a word on when they’ll release the ICS upgrade. Apple gets this right with the unified upgrade experience – and they’re very clear about what hardware is and is not supported. I know Android is a different beast, but the carriers aren’t alone to blame. Google is not leading by example.

  11. Even the Samsung Nexus which was supposed to be the ICS flagship for Google is still running 4.0.2 and hasn’t received the 4.0.3 (or I believe the now 4.0.4 and ??) updates yet.

    One of the reasons I got the Samsung Nexus was because I expected updates would be pushed quickly and right after Google released the source code. I was hoping to get a phone that always had the latest build without have to go the CM or AOSP community based builds.

    Whatever the excuse/reason, if Android is going to win in the long term against Apple and I think know Microsoft as well, Google needs to force phone makers and the carriers to update the software quickly.

    I still can’t believe I still new products based on 2.3 coming out. If nothing else you’d think Google would find a way to exert some pressure to stop that BS.