Why Android Needs To Pick Up The Update Pace, And Why The Time Is Right

There should be no doubt at this point: the world of Android is a turbulent, noisy, and at-times inscrutable tangle of interests. But the basics have stabilized quite a bit over the last year, and the Android community–if it can hang together–has a chance to prove that the platform is maturing by rewarding older customers with newer features.

Michael DeGusta of The Understatement posted an excellent infographic (that is, a truly useful one) this week showing just how poorly the Android community, namely Google (NSDQ: GOOG), phone makers, and carriers, have supported their early adopters with new versions of the software. Click through for the full graphic, but the stats are telling: of Android phones launched prior to June 2010, several of which are still under contract with their respective carriers, “12 of 18 only ran a current version of the OS for a matter of weeks or less” and “10 of 18 were at least two major versions behind well within their two year contract period.”

That’s an unfortunate byproduct of the breakneck pace that Google and the Android community set for themselves in order to try and catch up to Apple’s iOS. But it doesn’t really tell the full story of Android in late 2011, because it stops just short of taking into account the Android boom of late 2010 and into early 2011. That accounts for a huge proportion of the Android phones that are running relatively new operating system versions.

Current Landscape: According to Google, as of early October 83.4 percent of Android devices in use across the world are running either Froyo, Android version 2.2, or Gingerbread, Android version 2.3. Froyo is a year and a half old, and Gingerbread was announced in late 2010.

When Froyo was announced at Google I/O in 2010, Android had 13 percent of the U.S. smartphone market, as measured by operating system and according to Comscore (NSDQ: SCOR). Today, it has around 44 percent of that market, making it the leading mobile operating system.

DeGusta is right in pointing out how those who sustained Android in those early days have paid the price for taking the plunge, at least when it comes to software updates. But this is a much smaller percentage of the overall Android market than it would appear from his graphic.

Android was not the commercial success we now recognize before the release of Android 2.2 in fall 2010, and millions and millions of phones have been sold over the past 18 months with an operating system that is one generation behind Gingerbread, and two generations behind the Ice Cream Sandwich version that won’t become available for another few weeks.

iOS Comparisons: Life is certainly easier for those developing for Apple’s iOS platform, with its steady cadence of releases, uniform hardware, and control of the software update distribution process.

DeGusta argued:

OS developers, like Instapaper’s Marco Arment, waited patiently until just this month to raise their apps’ minimum requirement to the 11 month old iOS 4.2.1. They can do so knowing that it’s been well over 3 years since anyone bought an iPhone that couldn’t run that OS. If developers apply that same standard to Android, it will be at least 2015 before they can start requiring 2010’s Gingerbread OS.

That’s certainly more a more stable pace than afforded by the combination of Android’s convoluted update system and the wide variety of hardware that will run Android. Still, Android developers today can support 83 percent of the installed base by targeting an 18-month-old operating system that didn’t really start rolling out in earnest until the latter half of 2010 anyway.

Unfortunately for Android, that’s still not good enough: developers don’t want to alienate 17 percent of their potential users. But it’s the best position Android has ever been in, and the Android community has a chance to improve their uniformity if they move swiftly to Ice Cream Sandwich.

Council of Updates: If the Android community is truly interested in keeping Android competitive with iOS–which is hopefully among their priorities–they should ensure that the bulk of those phones currently running Android 2.2 or Android 2.3 find their way to Android 4.0, otherwise known as Ice Cream Sandwich. (For some weird reason Android 3.0 was picked as the name for the tablet-only version of Android; for smartphones, 4.0 is next in line to 2.3.)

Google wants this to happen. In an interview earlier this month with paidContent, Google’s Hiroshi Lockheimer said that older Android phones with single-core processors and displays less impressive than the Samsung Galaxy Nexus should be able to run Android 4.0 without problems.

The issue, as DeGusta cynically (but probably truthfully) pointed out, is that handset makers have little incentive to encourage older users to update their phones. They don’t control the development process for new software updates and need to differentiate their products from competitors, encouraging them to focus much more on the next phone around the corner as opposed to keeping current customers happy. It must also be noted that handset makers can have legitimate concerns over whether or not older handsets will be able to provide a good-enough experience running newer software.

This leaves the Android community at a bit of a crossroads. One of the most important announcements at Google I/O last May was the formation of a council of Android partners in hopes of coming to agreement on a way to speed up the update process for Android users. Nearly six months have come and gone with no word from that group as to whether or not it has actually figured anything out, and despite repeated inquiries Google continues to maintain a “stay tuned” message regarding this initiative.

Hanging Together Or Separately?: What a strange time to be involved with Android. It’s the most popular smartphone operating system in the world, yet it is racked with fear, uncertainty, and doubt, a fair amount of which is from its own making.

It’s going to be harder for Android makers to band together behind Google if they are wary about its intentions with regard to Motorola. Seemingly each day another Android vendor signs a patent-licensing deal with Microsoft, increasing their costs for adopting what was once seen as a free operating system. And developers continue to roll out their best and brightest ideas on iOS despite the market share disparity.

Yet should the Android community manage to find a way to collaborate, it’s poised to reward the users that made it into a household name with the same types of regular software updates they can expect from Apple with the purchase of a single phone. That could encourage them to stick with the platform as it gets prettier instead of wondering why there is such a fuss over the iPhone.

If this same industry is going to promote a business model that locks customers into two-year contracts with hefty termination penalties, it needs to find ways for its customers to find such a contract worth their while. Now that Android has matured, embracing a regular path of software updates isn’t just a luxury, it’s a necessity.

The good thing for Google and its partners is that so many of their customers are new. They’ll tolerate delays far better than the generation of Android early adopters stranded on older operating systems, but they won’t wait forever.