Update promises and Android 4.0 may fix fragmentation

Google’s Android 4.0 (s goog) software won’t be limited solely to new handset models like the Galaxy Nexus I just ordered; handset makers are starting to share plans on which existing smartphones will see the update. Both LG and Sony(s sne) Ericsson(s eric) have communicated initial details on their respective Facebook pages, indicating more information to follow. It’s likely both companies will push the update, also known as Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), in early 2012.

LG’s Facebook page suggests an upgrade will first be available for the high-end handsets it launched this year: the Optimus 2X, Optimus Black, Optimus 3D, and the Optimus LTE. None of these specific models are available in the U.S. under these names; however, some exist as rebadged devices. The Optimus 2X, for example, is sold in the U.S. as T-Mobile’s G2X, which we showed on video in early May. It’s possible then, that the U.S. versions of LG’s Optimus line will see ICS.

In contrast to LG, Sony Ericsson hasn’t announced anything official on its Facebook page. However, the Italian-based XperiaBlog caught a clue by way of Sony Ericsson’s marketing manager replying on Facebook to a question about potential updates. In his response, Maurizio De Palma from SE said that the Xperia line of phones should see Android 4.0 in March and all Xperia models from 2011 will see the new software.

With prior Android updates, we’ve seen some handset makers and carriers follow through with new software, while others haven’t. Often, those that did push new software did so more than six months after the code was made available from Google. Between the decisions of hardware makers and carriers, the various versions of Android available on phones has created a bit of an issue with developers and consumers: Similar phones don’t have the same capabilities or sometimes can’t run the same applications because of the software variance.

I expect we’ll soon start hearing from other manufacturers on which existing phones will get Android 4.0 in the near future. At its annual developer conference in May, Google announced a new initiative to adopt guidelines that bring Android updates and support to all new devices for 18 months after launch. If Google and its hardware partners hold true to that promise, any Android handset introduced to market after May of this year should see Android 4.0. Partners at the time of that news include:  Verizon(s vz), HTC, Samsung, Sprint(s s), Sony Ericsson, LG, T-Mobile, Vodafone(s vod), Motorola(s mmi) and AT&T(s t).

There hasn’t been much news of late on this initiative, but Google hasn’t released a major software update since version 2.3, known as Gingerbread, arrived last December. Small updates to Gingerbread have launched this year, but it’s Android 4.0 that’s the next big version, and likely proving ground, for the partnership effort announced in May. The additional goal is to speed up the process to get updates to consumers, which is sorely needed.

Google has fought the software fragmentation issue for well over two years now — with some success — but Android 4.0 has the potential to nearly eliminate it. By “starting over” with a new major version and promising updates for all new handsets after a certain date, consumers buying Android phones should see more similarities than differences between handsets by this time next year, if not sooner.