The dizzying pace of Google Android OS upgrades may leave many consumers scratching their heads in confusion and others pulling out their hair in frustration.
The first smarpthone sporting the new Ice Cream Sandwich software, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, hit the market today in the U.K. The hotly anticipated device will be available in other markets around the world by the end of the month.
The biggest selling point of the new smartphone is the software: Ice Cream Sandwich. This new OS not only redesigns the Android user interface and provides one release of software for both tablets and smartphones, but it also adds a slew of new cool features. These include facial recognition to unlock the phone, and Android Beam, an NFC-driven feature to exchange content like maps, contact details, and YouTube videos.
The release of the Nexus Galaxy and the new Ice Cream Sandwich software has millions of existing Android owners wondering when or if their smartphone might get the new software. Even though Google said earlier this week that it's made the source code available to developers, it's unclear when and on which devices manufacturers and carriers will start rolling out the software.
Even Samsung, which is the manufacturer making the Galaxy Nexus, hasn't been clear about when other Samsung Android phones will get the update.
Other manufacturers have been just as vague. Motorola has said that its new Droid Razr will likely get the software in the early part of 2012. And HTC said its new Rezound smartphone announced earlier this month is already "Ice Cream Sandwich-ready," but it and six other HTC phones won't actually get Ice Cream Sandwich until early 2012.
The confusion over which devices will get Ice Cream Sandwich and when they might get it is just one more example of how the rapid evolution of the operating system is fragmenting the market. Not only are there dozens of hardware options for Android phones, but in the three years that the Google OS has been on the market, there have already been six major releases of the software introduced not including Ice Cream Sandwich. There have also been several minor point updates, or sub-updates, to the software along the way. (View the entire history of Android's OS here.)
These software releases get version numbers and are also associated with names of yummy desserts. They span from Cupcake Android 1.5 to Honeycomb Android 3.2 and now Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0.
Google is well aware of the problems associated with how different versions of software and hardware complicate the market. In May, at its Google I/O developer conference, the company announced a new initiative to reign in software version fragmentation across Android devices. Google said it would work with manufacturers and wireless carriers to develop guidelines to help get updates to devices more quickly. Google pledged that participating partners and carriers would receive the most-current version of the Android software, for up to 18 months after the device's initial release. There's been little talk of these efforts since the announcement was made.
At that same conference, Ice Cream sandwich was introduced as the software that will finally unify the Android platform, at least when it comes to developing apps for smartphones and tablets. Why? Ice Cream Sandwich was developed to operate on both smartphones and tablets, giving developers one OS for which to develop.
Up until Ice Cream Sandwich, developers had to adapt apps made for older versions of the Android OS for smartphones to make them work on tablets. Google released Honeycomb, software exclusively for the tablet format, to bring a more robust experience to tablets. But apps made for Honeycomb aren't necessarily compatible with previous versions of Android running on smartphones and vice versa. The incompatibility of these apps may be contributing to slow sales for these tablets.
Ironically, while Ice Cream Sandwich was developed to simplify things for app developers by giving them one software for which to develop, it also meant that the ecosystem would add yet another major OS into a market already crowded with different versions of Android software. The pace of the upgrades has been so fast that device makers have had a difficult time keeping up with each release. Almost all Android manufacturers have been woefully slow in upgrading their devices to the latest software. In fact, many existing Android users are just now getting access to the latest Gingerbread updates.
Do you really want that upgrade?
To complicate matters further, even when Android users finally get the latest software upgrade for their devices, the upgrade itself often wreaks havoc on some older smartphones. Android subscribers have complained about lost contacts and wiped out calendar information, among other glitches after the new software has been installed.
It's no wonder that Google Android subscribers are confused not only about whether their device will get the latest software upgrade, but whether they should even want it. The questions surrounding software upgrades may frustrate consumers just enough to make them look at other platforms, including Microsoft's new Windows Phone devices.
"I have no loyalty to Android," said Justin Gliptis, an HTC Incredible owner. "In fact, I'll be happy to check something else out when my contract expires."
Gliptis's biggest complaint is that a couple of months ago when his HTC Incredible was upgraded to Gingerbread, he lost all of the contacts stored on his phone. His text message history was erased as was his entire calendar. He also noticed that the battery life of his device took a significant dip once the OS was updated, even though the newer version was supposed to offer better battery management.
"It will really make me think twice about upgrading my software again," he said.
It's true that Android users aren't the only ones to face troubles with software upgrades. Apple iPhone users upgrading to iOS 5 have also been plagued with battery life issues. But the different hardware used for Android smartphones as well as the multiple versions of software floating around have made it more difficult for Google and device makers to respond quickly to address all the issues.
Android smartphone manufacturers acknowledge that software upgrades can be troubling for some consumers. But they say they are working hard to address them. Ryan Bidan of Samsung said these issues are a result of Android's rapid growth and innovation.
"It's an interesting problem because the market is moving so fast," he said in a recent interview. And some of the stability issues "are a byproduct of how fast the Android ecosystem is evolving."
Indeed, the Android ecosystem has developed extraordinarily fast. In fact, it was only four years ago this month that Google announced plans to develop an open source OS for mobile devices. And the first Android phone, the T-Mobile G1, hit the market in October 2008. Three years later, Google Android is the fastest selling smartphone OS in the world.
New stats from Gartner suggest that Android has more than 52 percent of the global smartphone market share. Compare this to Apple iOS's 15 percent. A recent ComScore report said that just in the U.S., Android garners 43 percent share of the smartphone market and the iPhone has 27 percent market share.
Google said recently that more than 200 million Android devices have now been activated around the world. This is more than double the number of Android phones the company said had been activated as of May during its Google I/O developer conference.
While there are 11 different versions of Android software floating in the market, the vast majority of Android devices are running software in the middle of the spectrum. About 40 percent of devices are running Froyo Android 2.2, according to the Web site Android Developers. And more than 44 percent are running one of four versions of the Gingerbread software.
Taking matters into your own hands
Even in spite of some upgrade horror stories, there are plenty of Android fans who simply want the latest and greatest software on their devices. Especially for consumers who have recently bought a new Android phone, there is deep envy when a new release of software comes out. For those who simply can't wait or are unsure if Ice Cream Sandwich will ever come to their devices, there is a solution.
CyanogenMod is a project that lets people use new versions of Android even when their carriers or phone makers aren't caught up. And it has already begun working on its version of Ice Cream Sandwich. Of course, using software from CyanogenMod to load the latest version of Android software is not for everyone. It requires some know-how to "root" the phone so that a new version of the operating system can be installed. But for die-hard fans, it's the only way to ensure they can have the latest and greatest software.
Terrance Durouseau, who owns the HTC Droid Incredible 2, isn't sure whether his smartphone will get Ice Cream Sandwich. But he said he isn't worried because even if he can't get it, he will install the software on his device himself.
"I won't concern myself much with whether I will get the update over the air not," he said. "When I find the time to get this thing rooted, I'll install CyanogenMod9 as soon as it's available for my handset. So either way, I'll be getting ICS."