The Android upgrade argument

By JR Raphael (@jr_raphael)

Android Upgrade Argument - Ice Cream Sandwich

With the launch of Google's Android Ice Cream Sandwich looming on the horizon, Android upgrades are at the front of plenty of people's minds. With every Android release, after all, come the inevitable questions: Will my phone get the latest update? And if so, when?

Over the weekend, a little debate started in the blogosphere about the Android ecosystem and how upgrades work within the platform. Some of us chatted about it over on Google+. In short, CNET writer Molly Wood opened a can of anger at Android, talking about her frustrations awaiting past upgrades and proclaiming that Ice Cream Sandwich was Google's "last chance" at winning her over. If it didn't succeed, she said, she'd move over to Apple's iOS, where she knew upgrades would be in the hands of one company and streamlined as a result. 

Phil Nickinson of Android Central came back with a lengthy retort, taking a detailed look at the Android upgrade situation and providing what I found to be some smart perspective.

Phil points out that Android is evolving faster than carriers and manufacturers can keep up with -- and the truth, bitter as it may be to swallow, is that "not all Android smartphones are created equal."

The Android Upgrade Argument: Some Thoughts

Android Upgrade Argument

I've spent a lot of time looking at Android upgrades over the years. I did a detailed analysis of upgrade reliability by manufacturer and carrier this past January to get a snapshot of how things looked; I also continually keep tabs on Android 2.3 upgrades from around the world. It's my job to hold a front row seat to this show, and it's a responsibility I take seriously.

For those of us who are passionate about technology, waiting for a software upgrade can certainly be frustrating. I know this firsthand as well as from the countless Android users with whom I chat from week to week. Some manufacturers and carriers take inexcusably long to get upgrades delivered (cough, cough, Samsung, cough, cough, AT&T); there is no denying that. But all things in perspective, I think Phil hits the nail on the head.

Put simply, the variability in upgrade time and commitment is somewhat inevitable, given the open source nature of the Android platform and the ways manufacturers can and do modify the OS. It's still ridiculous that a high-end, high-profile phone like the Galaxy S takes so long to get updated, of course, but that's an unfortunate side effect you get along with Samsung's TouchWiz UI and the carrier-specific tweaks that accompany it.

That side effect is a significant part of why I've repeatedly argued that it's time for the baked-in Android UI to die (and for unremovable bloatware to kick the bucket, too). I wholeheartedly believe most important manufacturer-made modifications could be implemented on a less invasive and delay-causing level, where the OS itself would not need to be rebuilt with each Android release. Ultimately, though, manufacturers retain the freedom to change the OS as they wish -- and despite the upgrade delays those changes can cause, for some users, they create a net-positive result.

That brings us to the bigger point, which is that Android's openness can be both a blessing and a curse: You gain the possibility of interesting alternate takes on the platform, whether from manufacturers or from after-market groups like Cyanogen, but as a result, you lose out on the uniformity and control you see in a locked-down platform like iOS. For better and for worse, the diversity in software is really a core part of Android's essence.

Android Upgrades: The User's Choice

All considered, it comes down to this: Android presents you with a lot of choices. If quick and regular upgrades are important to you, Google's "pure" Nexus phones are the way to go. Other phones have their individual benefits, but -- annoying as it may be -- a guarantee of timely upgrades is simply not one of them. (The "Android Update Alliance" announced this past May should eventually make that disparity less bad, but there'll likely always be a gap between the Nexus phones and most others when it comes to upgrade efficiency.)

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That's the whole reason Google's Nexus line was created: to offer users the choice of owning a top-notch device that always runs the latest unmodified Android software, delivered straight from the folks who make it. The problem, I think, is that most average consumers aren't fully aware of the differences in Android phone software and how upgradeability can vary from one device to another. That might be an area where Google could improve its marketing with the Nexus line, driving home the message that those are the phones you want if keeping up with cutting-edge software is a priority.Bottom line: You can get a guaranteed fast-upgrade scenario on Android, just like you can with iOS -- but with Android, you have choices. There's a huge variety of devices available, and every phone has something different to offer. If the latest and greatest software is what you want, you can have it; you just have to pick the phone that provides that type of experience.

JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other tasty technology. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

Article copyright 2011 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

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