Imagine if when Windows 7 came out, it was only offered on only one particular Dell computer. It was also uncertain when or if other computers, including those made by Dell, would ever be able to upgrade to it. Welcome to the “clopen” world of Android.
Android “Open” For Whom?
Google has made much of Android being “open” for use by anyone and thus potentially better than the “closed” system of the Apple iOS world. But “clopen” would be a better way to describe Android, as some have, because it’s both closed and open at the same time.
There’s no doubt that Android is open for anyone to use. Amazon has used Android as the basis for its Kindle Fire, but a version of Android altered so much that you can’t run apps from Google’s own official Android Market. Instead, you have to use Amazon’s own Android App Store.
But Android is largely closed for the typical consumers who use it, because they have little choice about which version of Android will run on their device. They’re left at the mercy of the device makers or mobile carriers.
Waiting For Android 4
The release of Android 4 — “Ice Cream Sandwich” — last month is underscoring this issue once again. It’s available only on one-and-a-half models of phones right now. Both are from Google: the new Galaxy Nexus and its predecessor, the Nexus S.
One-and-a-half? The Nexus S is the half-model, because only those with the GSM version of the Nexus S (used by T-Mobile and AT&T in the US) get updates. Those using the Sprint version of the Nexus S have to wait.
It really doesn’t get more absurd than being unable to know when or if you’ll get the latest version of Google’s own Android operating system on Google’s own Nexus S branded phone. It’s as if you owned a Mac but were given no clue from Apple about whether it could run a new version of Mac OS X.
Apple & Microsoft Make Updates Easy
Actually, it’s not like that, because Apple would never allow such uncertainty. Apple would ensure that you knew which devices you owned were able to be upgraded to a new version of its mobile or desktop operating systems, say like this for iOS:
Even Microsoft, having to deal with people who want to run Windows 7 on thousands of different computer models that Microsoft itself didn’t build, still provides consumers with ways to know how to upgrade, like the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor.
Android Update Limbo
But Android? Consumers are left guessing. If Android 4 was a real ice cream sandwich, it might melt long before it was delivered to customers.
A big reason behind this mess is that Google doesn’t actually sell the Android operating system to consumers. If it did, it would probably care more about ensuring customers (because that’s what they would be) were covered from start to finish.
The Android 4 page from Google touts all the advantages that the new operating system offers. The page is written for consumers. But nothing on it explains how consumers can actually get the operating system.
Heck, the Android site itself doesn’t even provide any guidance about upgrading devices to the latest version of Android 2 (and around half the Android devices out there don’t seem to run the latest version of Android 2).
Instead, to discover if you will get an upgrade, you have to hope that your handset maker or mobile phone carrier lets you know. In my case, Verizon has told me nothing directly about whether my Droid Charge will get updated. Neither has Samsung, which makes the phone. Support pages from Verizon and Samsung are no help. As a consumer, I’m left in limbo.
- Google: Nexus S GSM devices were getting updates, but that’s paused while bugs are being worked out. No official info on updates for the Nexus S from Sprint have been given. The Nexus One is deemed too old for Android 4, not that Google has notified owners of these phones in any way that I can tell.
- HTC: The HTC Vivid, the HTC Sensation (including XL & XE), the Rezound, the EVO 3D and Design 4G and the Amaze 4G all will get updates in early 2012, the company has said.
- LG: The company will release updates in the second and third quarter of this year for various devices. Third quarter, just in time probably for Android 5 to be released.
- Motorola: On its awesome upgrade page listing all sorts of devices, the Droid RAZR, Xoom and Bionic will all receive Android 4, though the timing isn’t given.
- Samsung: Various “Galaxy” devices will get updates in the first quarter of this year.
- Sony: From late March through early May, 2011 Xperia smartphones will get updated.
PC Magazine also did a nice round-up in mid-December, including information from some of the carriers. But couldn’t Google do more to centralize this type of news?
Google has maintained a Google Phone Gallery since September 2010. Why not centralize Android update news through that? Why not, at least, add a filter that allows you to search for devices by the current Android OS they use, information already stored within the gallery.
If Computerworld can maintain this incredible list of devices and where they stand in terms of getting Android 4, Google should be able to do it.
To Upgrade Your Software, Buy A New Phone
To go back to my opening metaphor, the situation now is as if millions of people using computers running Windows Vista are hearing that Windows 7 has just been released but that they can’t upgrade to it right now.
I hear the hardcore Android advocates already chanting with their common refrain: root the device. In other words, consumers can install the latest Android operating system directly on many devices, if they want.
That’s not what a typical consumer is going to do. They wouldn’t do it for a Mac or PC, not without a guided upgrade system. They certainly wouldn’t do it if it meant potentially voiding their warranty or that they might need to reroot the device on a regular basis.
Yes, we will see Android 2 phones get upgraded to Android 4 in the coming months. But I suspect it’s more likely that the upgrade process will happen for many current Android owners when they simply buy a new handset and effectively trash the old one.
Why Android Survives This Mess
That’s probably been the saving grace for Android. Unlike PCs, the hardware specs for smartphones seem to change so rapidly. We’re trained to think that phones should get tossed out after two years — and for those who want to pay more for the latest-and-greatest — to upgrade our hardware each year.
It’s also part of the saving grace for Android against the fragmentation and confusion in the marketplace that Steve Jobs lashed out against in October 2010:
Google loves to characterize Android as open, and iOS and iPhone as closed. We find this a bit disingenuous and clouding the real difference between our two approaches.
The first thing most of us think about when we hear the work open is Windows which is available on a variety of devices. Unlike Windows, however, where most PC’s have the same user interface and run the same app, Android is very fragmented. Many Android OEMs, including the two largest, HTC and Motorola install proprietary user interfaces to differentiate themselves from the commodity Android experience. The users will have to figure it all out.
Compare this with iPhone, where every handset works the same.
Twitter client, Twitter Deck, recently launched their app for Android. They reported that they had to contend with more than 100 different versions of Android software on 244 different handsets. The multiple hardware and software iterations present developers with a daunting challenge. Many Android apps work only on selected Android handsets running selected Android versions. And this is for handsets that have been shipped less than 12 months ago.
Compare this with iPhone, where there are two versions of the software, the current and the most recent predecessor to test against.
So what if the user interface on one Android phone is different from another? It’s not like most people are going between two different handsets at the same time. If they get a new one, and things are different, they learn — just like they have to learn when things change (and they do) between iOS updates.
So what if not all the same apps are available for all the platforms? If the most popular apps are, that’s good enough. Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare — I’ve never had a problem with using these on any Android phone, I have — and I’ve owned and tested plenty.
But Google Still Should Clean Things Up
These things don’t seem to matter in slowing Android’s growth. But they should matter, and Google should be embarrassed for not doing more to improve the situation.
All the devices at CES, as I mentioned, have keypads and screens and things like that, if you look around. Now why is there no standard for those little screens and keypads?…
Another example [slide of a pile of adapters and cords]: these are the power adapters just lying around our office….Why not instead standardize the power and have a basic [adapter device]….
Despite this, Page’s company sits on top of the Android ecosystem doing seemingly little to really ensure that there is a standard for how and when handsets will get Android updates.
At Google I/O last May, major handset makers, mobile carriers and Google came together to announce what was purported to be a solution to this problem:
The Android ecosystem has been moving really fast over the last two and a half years and rapid iteration on new and highly-requested features has been a driving force behind Android’s success. But of course that innovation only matters if it reaches consumers.
So today we’re announcing that a founding team of industry leaders, including many from the Open Handset Alliance, are working together to adopt guidelines for how quickly devices are updated after a new platform release, and also for how long they will continue to be updated.
The founding partners are Verizon, HTC, Samsung, Sprint, Sony Ericsson, LG, T-Mobile, Vodafone, Motorola and AT&T, and we welcome others to join us.
To start, we’re jointly announcing that new devices from participating partners will receive the latest Android platform upgrades for 18 months after the device is first released, as long as the hardware allows…and that’s just the beginning.
Stay tuned for more details.
If the carrot hasn’t worked, maybe Google could try the stick now. Any device that wants to carry the Google name on it has to be certified by Google. Why not make a fast update part of the certification requirements?
Why not, as part of releasing Android, make it a requirement that consumers can easily strip the device of its customized Android OS and install the latest version if they want, directly from Google or any Android OS provider?
When I put this to Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt back in 2010, when he was CEO, Schmidt said such a requirement would violate the principle of Android being open source. But such a requirement might actually make it more open for the actual users of the software.
As for carrier objections, given the big wet kiss that Google gave them by not pushing for net neutrality on mobile networks, the carriers can give a little back.
Is This The Success Android Wants?
As I’ve said, the fragmentation and inconsistency of Android doesn’t seem to have stopped its success. Google could do nothing and simply bask in the glory of Android succeeding despite the fact that….
- The “Android” Nook won’t run the Kindle app, because Barnes & Noble doesn’t allow it.
- The “Android” Kindle Fire doesn’t offer Gmail or Twitter, along with other apps, because Amazon doesn’t allow it.
- Hulu Plus is available for Android, but not for Android-based Google TV, because Hulu doesn’t allow it to work there.
- The Nexus S for Sprint, which is perfectly capable of working on Sprint’s pay-by-the-month Boost Mobile sister-company, can’t work there because Sprint doesn’t allow it.
- My Droid Charge Verizon LTE phone can’t run Android 4 now, and perhaps never, because Samsung hasn’t said anything about it.
To really understand the absurdity here, let me rewrite that in PC terms:
- My Windows computer made by Barnes & Noble can’t run the Windows Kindle application, because Barnes & Noble blocks it.
- My Windows computer made by Amazon can’t run the Windows Gmail application, because Amazon blocks it.
- My Windows computer made by Google can’t run the Windows Hulu application, because Hulu blocks it.
- My Windows computer made by Google can’t work with the ISP that I want, because the ISP I originally bought it from says no.
- My Windows computer made by Samsung can’t be upgraded to the latest operating system, because there’s no way for me to easily install it, and Samsung and Verizon aren’t helping.
Believe me, there are issues with iOS, as well. It’s not like any of the iPhones I’ve fully paid for from AT&T were magically unlocked at the end of my contract. It’s not like if I want a removable battery for my iPhone, that I have that option. It’s not like, if I want a smaller or bigger format for my iPhone, that I get any choice in that.
Think that’s a minor issue, phone size? I saw a stranger using an Android phone I’d not seen before two days ago, while I was in a line to buy lunch. I asked about it. The woman told me a bit, including that she liked because it was smaller than the iPhone. Usability, operating system, apps — for her, choice of size was a primary feature.
Android’s openness allows for this type of choice. But from a consumer perspective, there’s still a huge amount of closed about the platform. It feels like Google could do a lot more to open things up and still allow hardware manufacturers and carriers to believe there’s value in staying with the platform.
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