iPhones 180x More Likely to Be Current Than Androids. Not.

I was disappointed to read one of the most disingenuous comparisons between iOS (s aapl) and Android (s goog) version uptake this morning. TechCrunch’s MG Siegler, whom I genuinely enjoy reading, took Android to task, noting that only 0.4 percent of Android handsets run Gingerbread, or Android 2.3; the current version of the operating system. By comparison, 89.73 percent of iOS handsets are on version 4.x, meaning an iPhone is about 180 times more likely than an Android device to be running the most current operating system version. There’s a valid point to be made here, but (pardon the pun) one has to compare apples to apples.

What exactly is Siegler comparing? One the iOS side, he’s counting the major version, iOS 4, and all other minor versions, i.e., 4.1, 4.2, etc. … Yet on the Android side, he’s specifically saying that Android 2.3 is the only one that matters. If you have Android 2.1 or 2.2, you’re behind and simply don’t count in Siegler’s world. Simply put: Counting the major and minor versions on one side the equation means you have to count them on the other side too.

And what happens when you do that, using the most current Google Android dashboard numbers? You find that 87.4 percent of Android devices are on version 2.x, which is statistically the exact same as the number of iOS handsets on version 4.x. I could give Siegler’s article the benefit of the doubt if he’d never used Gingerbread and assumed it was completely different from Android 2.2, but he reviewed a Nexus S with Gingerbread. He knows the same thing I know because I’m running a custom Gingerbread ROM on my Nexus One: The differences are very subtle and the number of new features are relatively few.

Questionable use of statistics aside, there is a valid point to be made here in terms of Android updates as compared to those from Apple for iOS devices. With the exception of the Nexus devices, the carriers, and not Google, shoot over-the-air updates to Android devices. By and large then, carriers control the Android experience, which is very different from how Apple controls the iPhone experience. Google tried to wrest this control from carriers with the Nexus One, but had to give up in order to get carriers to adopt the Android operating system.

In return, Android consumers gain a choice of hardware form factors and features not found on the iPhone. Want a portrait or landscape keyboard with physical buttons? You can buy that. Have to have a whopping 4.3-inch screen? There are a few of those available now and plenty more coming this year. These are just two examples, and they’re important to point out because each hardware variance means a potential impact to the software updates; carriers and handset manufacturers have to ensure that Android works with the hardware. Yes, they use the time to put in their own apps and customizations too, but they can’t just take Google’s code and immediately push it out to phones.

This situation allows Android handset owners to be considered “second class citizens” in the eyes of the carriers. After all, which do carriers consider a better investment: spending money to upgrade phones they’ve already sold or spending money on new handsets to gain new customers? Sadly, I suspect the latter situation is more prevalent, which is why many Android handsets don’t see up minor version OS upgrades for months, if ever. The T-Mobile myTouch 3G (3.5mm jack and Fender editions) are just now getting Android 2.2, for example, even though the devices hit market in October of 2009.

Unfortunately, Android is still a mobile blend of the old-school carrier control combined with a flexible and customizable mobile operating system. And unless Google asserts itself by trying to wrest back control of the platform from the carriers — something I don’t think it can easily do at this point — most Android owners will continue to be at the mercy of the carriers: a totally different situation from the Apple world.

Back to the original source for this post: I still completely respect Siegler and he’s probably the most likely competitor I’d love to sit back and have a few beers with over an iOS vs Android conversation. (MG: the first round is on me.) But based on his choice of statistics for this particular topic, I’m wondering if he and his iPhone are already waiting for me at the bar, clouding judgement on what the definition of “current version” really is. Using the more appropriate rationalization that the minor versions count too, the majority of Android handsets have been current for months.

Oh, and just to proactively cut off the expected “fanboi” comments, I’ll disclose that I did dump my iPhone for the Nexus One a year ago. But it’s also worth the mention that I’ve been using my 4th generation iPod touch more and more of late — so much so that I’m thinking of moving back to iPhone this summer and simply using my 7-inch Galaxy Tab for my Android experience. It may depend on Apple boosting the screen size of the iPhone, simply because I prefer a larger display on my smartphone.

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