The Great ICS Upgrade Scandle: Everyone Just Calm Down

I have been hearing an increasing amount of chatter lately about the infamous Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) delays for Android. I want to discuss the actual impact, and propose some resolutions to this problem.

The article that inspired me to write this is Jason Perlow’s post “I’m sick to death of Android“. Hopefully that title is a hyperbole, but it does address the primary issue that I have with people complaining about ICS delays – I don’t see it as show stopping. Name me the new features that are in ICS? How is this OS upgrade going to change your day-to-day phone experience? Sure it would be nice, and there are probably plenty of small touches, but this isn’t revolutionary.

Jason is the (proud?) owner of a Motorola Xoom tablet, and the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. The former was recently acquired by Google, and the latter of which is a Google Experience handset, meant to be a developer reference device. He argues that not receiving timely updates has caused him to “throw in the towel”.

I can sympathize with him about not getting updates on his Galaxy Nexus device, as its primary marketing angle appears to be “first” when it comes to updates. If I had dropped the money on that phone, I would be upset if major updates weren’t being released. However, Galaxy Nexus already has ICS, and he is addressing other updates from “bugfix iterations”. Not too exciting. I feel less bad for him about his Motorola tablet. Unless Jason is clairvoyant, he didn’t buy the Motorola tablet because of its strong candidacy for timely updates from Google after they acquired Motorola.

The Problem

ICS was released by Google in October 2011, which has been six months ago, but still accounts for only 1.6% of distribution of Android versions. I can’t defend that. It is a red flag for major distribution problems. Apple’s iOS adoption rate reached 61% in only 15 days and people are tempted to draw a comparison. Google’s Android, and Apple’s iOS are both mobile phone platforms, however they are operating on completely different distribution models. Android was never meant to be a closed ecosystem like iOS. You can’t install iOS on non-Apple hardware. You can with Android.

I think a more apt comparison is between Google and Microsoft’s distribution models. Microsoft makes the Windows operating system, and hardware manufacturers install it on their devices. Its not exactly the same since Microsoft charges for upgrades, and you bypass the hardware vendor to install the upgrade on your device. The mobile carrier middle-man is also non-existent in the Microsoft model.

When Google releases an Android OS upgrade, and handset manufacturers push it to their own devices when they are ready. Further, the mobile carrier may withhold a device OTA update until it deems it is ready (or even necessary). Handset manufactures have clearly prioritized selling new devices over supporting current devices. I’m sure they have ran the numbers, and have made this decision because it yields the most profit. They are a business after all. Apple pushes these updates because they get a cut of every App Store sale, and a failure to upgrade a device is a potential loss of revenue.

Why would a mobile carrier dedicate resources into deploying an OTA update for devices that are “working just fine?”. It comes down to money again, and their decision is clear. Apple probably provides monetary, or exclusivity incentives to the mobile carrier to push their updates. There are many Android phones, but only one iPhone, so carriers probably acquiesce to Apple’s demands.

Solutions

So how can we make this work, without abandoning the entire Android concept over just this one issue?

Incentivise upgrades for carriers/handset vendors. What if OS updates were not free, like in the Microsoft model? A nominal free for upgrading may offset the costs of handset manufacturer, and carrier costs for supporting such an upgrade. Businesses like money, and Ice Cream Sandwich is worth something to me, especially given that most of us are locked into a two year contract anyway. I would rather put some money towards an upgrade now, then wait until my contract runs out to upgrade to a device that has the update.

Educate ourselves. There is no correlation between handset manufacturer’s sales and past performance on OS upgrades. This doesn’t seem to be an issue with the majority of consumers with Android devices. Without it affecting sales, there is little reason to divert resources into maintaining already sold devices.

Open the device boot-loaders. Maybe OS upgrades aren’t the responsibility of handset manufactures or mobile carriers at all, like in the Microsoft model. If people who wanted the OS upgrade had a way to load the update themselves, then this would act as a pressure release value for the current scenario. The idea of a locked boot-loader seems to be archaic anyways, and is rooted in fear. Let the consumer own their own device and do with it as they please.

Make a kickass OS upgrade, and drive consumer demand. Ice Cream Sandwich just seems so lackluster to me. (Maybe I stopped believing it was so cool to keep from going crazy). Short of a few new features, there isn’t anything game changing about this release. Android has plenty of problems that are within the realm of the OS to address. Give me greatly improved battery life, blazing fast performance, zero boot time, fantastic reception, FM radio, overclocking abilities; something – anything to get me excited about an upgrade. I don’t see ICS as changing the day-to-day use of my phone in any meaningful way, and thus I’m not rallying hard for it on my device. I can’t imagine I am alone in patiently waiting for this meek update.

Forget UI customizations; the differentiator should be upgrade latency. People have prophesied about the race-to-the-bottom happening for Android devices the same way it did for PCs. Manufacturers are differentiating themselves in meaningless ways, such as skinning the stock Android UI, or building useless shit that consumers don’t care about. These customizations prolong upgrade turnaround times, when in fact manufacturers should be doing the opposite. As OSNews.com’s Thom Holwerda states: “ they’re wasting considerable resources on useless and ugly crap that does nothing to benefit consumers. Android may have needed customisation a number of versions ago – but not today. ICS is ready as-is. TouchWiz and Samsung’s other customisations add nothing.”. Instead of scaping the bottom of the bucket for ideas on how to differentiate, lets have one manufacturer try this. Hopefully stronger sales would substantiate the idea that consumers care about OS upgrades.

Acknowledge that the lifespan of a phone is only two years. The predominate cell phone sale model in the US is one of subsidized hardware. You pay inflated monthly prices to offset the cost of a low up front purchase cost on your device. Most people upgrade devices at the end of their contract period, since the inflated subsidized price never drops anyway. It is in your best interest to have the latest and greatest because the current model is so abusive to consumers. This being said, the average lifespan of a phone is around two years. How many major OS releases will occur in that timespan? Probably just one. Maybe this short lifespan doesn’t justify the need to have these devices be upgraded at all. Remember that computer you may have bought because it had extra slots to upgrade the memory? Did you actually fill those slots, or just buy a newer faster computer a few years later instead?

Final Thought

So Jason, enjoy your 2.3 experience, because it is probably near identical to the 4.0 experience you are dying to get. I wouldn’t throw in the towel yet on Android because ICS is taking a while to come out. It will get here, and as soon as Google is hurt by lack of adoption they will take action. I hope that my solutions provide some food for thought on how to fix the current problem. Instead of compulsively pressing the “Software Update” option, I’m going to enjoy my experience, and stop letting the media dictate how I should feel. Though “fragmented” we Android users may be, an app targeting the 2.1 platform can be run on 97% of the current devices. That is what developers will be targeting, and I’m sure I’m not missing much from the other 3% of apps that I can’t run before I receive my update.

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