When it comes to Android upgrades, we're used to certain manufacturers taking their good sweet time to get software rolled out. One of the most vexing mysteries with the Android 4.0 upgrade, though, has been the uncharacteristically long time it's taken for Google's own flagship devices to receive their over-the-air updates.
Google's Nexus and "Google experience" devices, by definition, are meant to get Android upgrades fast -- more or less as soon as the software is released. That's one of the products' key benefits: Since the software is controlled by Google and free from manufacturer meddling, the upgrades are handled directly by Google as well. It's a sharp contrast to the way other phones' upgrades are handled, where the planning and deployment lies squarely in the hands of the manufacturers.
With Ice Cream Sandwich, however, something went wrong. Some versions of Google's Nexus S phone, including the CDMA model on Sprint, waited three and a half months from the start of the Android 4.0 upgrades to get their first tastes of ICS. Many users of the Motorola Xoom, meanwhile -- a flagship "Google experience" device that has its upgrades handled directly by Google -- are still waiting for their servings of Ice Cream Sandwich; as of now, the Wi-Fi edition of the tablet is the only model that's been upgraded. The 3G/4G version of the device is still stuck on Honeycomb.
On top of that, the Verizon Galaxy Nexus -- the inaugural U.S. model of Google's current flagship phone -- is using an older version of Ice Cream Sandwich and hasn't been upgraded in months. That's a huge departure from the Nexus/"Google experience" philosophy, which revolves around upgrades early and often -- whether they're major or they're incremental, like the 4.0.3 and now 4.0.4 releases that Verizon users have yet to see.
So what gives? For the first time today, we're getting some insight into the issue.
Google engineer Jean-Baptiste Queru -- the technical lead of the company's Android Open-Source Project -- took to Google+ today to share his thoughts on the matter. Queru praised Sony for upgrading its Tablet S device to Ice Cream Sandwich today and went on to address the Google flagship upgrade fiasco.
"The part that blows my mind is that some variants of the Google-engineered flagship devices still haven't received Ice Cream Sandwich (or are stuck with older versions of Ice Cream Sandwich) because of delays introduced by operator approvals," Queru said.
He went on to talk about the benefits of Google restarting its direct-to-consumer sales program and the current challenges the company faces in having the carrier as the middleman:
I'm very glad that Google is back in the business of selling phones directly without any middlemen to interfere, and I'll be even happier when I see that program expanded to more countries. Writing the software doesn't mean that Google can deploy it immediately, there are operator approvals for devices that are sold and/or supported by operators. Look at the US WiFi Xoom: obviously no operator approval, upgraded to 4.0.3 back in December (the first version of ICS that ran on anything other than Galaxy Nexus) and now running 4.0.4.
So there you have it: Despite the Nexus name or "Google experience" branding, carriers are inevitably involved on some level when a device is officially sold or supported by them. And, according to Queru's remarks, it's the carriers creating the delays in getting upgrades pushed out to certain models of Google's flagship devices.
The newly relaunched Google-direct sales setup, it seems, is the company's solution to overcoming this. It won't be the answer for all consumers, of course, but for Android power users, it's certainly an enticing proposition.
Here's hoping it works.
Article copyright 2012 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.