Back in November, I wrote a blog about the new features of Ice Cream Sandwich (aka Android 4.0) and eagerly awaited receiving the update. Now, over three months on, only 1.6% of Android phones are running a version of ICS. Even Google’s Nexus S, supposedly the first in line to receive upgrades, isn’t running it – not unless the owners have rooted their devices and flashed the ROM.
What is particularly frustrating about the long wait (and yes, I understand that handset vendors have to check that devices are compatible and make sure that their custom UIs work perfectly) is that the very active Android developer community has already created functioning versions of ICS for many devices. There are no less than 15 ROMs available for my device on xda-developers, some of which even come with the vendor’s UI. I could even install the stock ROM currently being rolled out OTA by the vendor which is presumably now with my operator, being tested for network compatibility.
It’s also astonishing that new devices are shipping which are still running Gingerbread (aka Android 2.3) – I appreciate that development cycles are considerably longer than 3-4 months but if some vendors have managed it, why are others still lagging behind?
This is one area where Apple’s tight grip on its ecosystem makes absolute sense. iPhones all get the update on the same day no matter where they are or what operator they are on. While some people might choose to keep using an older version of iOS, most people get the update and enjoy the new features. Of course this is possible because Apple only have to make their update work with the 2 or 3 devices that they are looking to update, many of the Android vendors are updating 4 or more devices. Sony, for example, is updating ten of their devices which is a pretty big challenge.
So, what exactly is the problem with slow upgrade cycles?
Firstly, someone getting a brand new device will generally expect it to be able to run anything from Google Play. While most developers will target the largest the OS version with the largest user base, this will eventually be ICS and anyone with an older version of Android will be left in the dark. Increasing operating system fragmentation will also harm consumer perceptions of Android. If consumers are told that the latest devices have Face Unlock or visual voicemail and they don’t have those features, they are likely to associate that with the Android brand rather than the vendors.
Secondly, for many early tech adopters, having the latest and greatest is a real driver. Many of us don’t have the funds to purchase a new phone every year so it’s important that our devices are kept as up to date as possible. Yes, just like Apple do. If my year old phone, which still has great specs, isn’t getting an update or the update is slow in arriving, then I won’t think much of the vendor and I’ll be less likely to buy their top of the range smartphone at upgrade time.
The question is; should Google keep a tighter grip on its ecosystem and ensure, like Apple do, that all devices receive an update on the same day?