Why Running A Mobile OS By Committee Can Be Very Hard

Attempting to build consensus among Android vendors is a tricky undertaking in late 2011. As a result, Google (NSDQ: GOOG) and its partners appear ready to enter a year in which Android will likely dominate the smartphone market without having come to a formal agreement on how timely software updates will be rolled out to Android phones, once again putting their own needs over the needs of consumers and the platform itself.
Several other writers have pointed out both the pace of updates to Ice Cream Sandwich (Computerworld’s JR Raphel has a very helpful running list of devices scheduled to receive the Android 4.0 update) and the inability of ten key Android partners to even admit they once agreed to develop standards for how to roll out updates to devices in the wild, as laid out by PCMag.com’s Jamie Lendino. At first glance it seems like Android 4.0 is ahead of the game as compared to previous major updates, but the scattershot approach that vendors continue to take to Android upgrades reveals a few things.
The first is not a new revelation, but it’s nonetheless proven true every few months: Android is fragmented. On Friday, Samsung said it was not going to release Android 4.0 to Galaxy S phones because the phone’s hardware couldn’t bear the burden of having to run both the operating system update and Samsung’s custom TouchWiz user interface.
Other Android handset makers have their own custom user interfaces, all of which probably have slightly different hardware requirements. That makes it extremely difficult to enforce upgrade standards across partners because while Motorola’s phones may be able to handle the new software, Samsung’s may not. And forced to choose, those companies are more loyal to the experiences they developed themselves than Android updates.
The second is that the humble organization once known as the Open Handset Alliance appears to have no real function. Instead of moving together on new standards as members of technical organizations tend to do, handset makers and carriers continue to dictate the advancement of Android based on their own individual needs, rather than the good of the many.
When you look back at the original Web site set up by the group back in 2007, it becomes easy to see why: “All members of the Alliance have committed to making the initial version of the platform a commercial success,” the group said in response to the question “What have members of the Alliance committed to?” Now that the commercial success of Android is quite secure, partisan needs appear to taken precedent over the need to convince consumers who have made investments in Android phones that they’ll have access to new features without having to fork over another few hundred bucks to get a whole new phone.
That’s not good for the long-term prospects of Android, as I pointed out earlier this year around the launch of Android 4.0. But that speaks to the third thing revealed by the lack of interest in fulfilling the “update council” mandate laid out by Google last May: the long-term picture for Android is a bit fuzzy as the year winds down.
It’s not that Android is poised to lose ground among consumers this year: people clearly seem to want an alternative to the iPhone and none of the other competitors–Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 or Research in Motion’s BlackBerry–are in any position to make significant gains at Android’s expense in the short term. And it’s not clear how many average consumers get caught up in these update debates the way more passionate mobile advocates do.
But Android partners are thinking long and hard about their investment in the software heading into 2012, sick of patent taxes and worried about Google’s potential purchase of Motorola: It’s hard to find that many people in the mobile industry who believe that Google will always run Motorola (NYSE: MMI) at arm’s length, as it has insisted it plans to do should U.S. and European regulators approve the $12.5 billion deal.
Even if Google does live up to that promise, it has a recurring problem whenever it tries to enforce standards on Android partners. Many companies signed up for the program with the understanding that they would be able to run their phones as they saw fit rather than having to operate under the yoke of a single company like the way Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) held sway over the PC industry for decades.
If Google is going to enforce the pledge laid out at Google I/O–that ten companies (Verizon, HTC, Samsung, Sprint (NYSE: S), Sony (NYSE: SNE) Ericsson (NSDQ: ERIC), LG (SEO: 066570), T-Mobile, Vodafone (NYSE: VOD), Motorola and AT&T) would ensure that Android phones released after May would be eligible for updates 18 months into the future–then it has to crack the whip with partners. Partners don’t like it when Google cracks the whip or upsets their business models, as shown earlier this year in the flap over anti-fragmentation policies and the short life of the Nexus One Web store.
There’s still time for the Android community to live up to the spirit of that pledge: it only applied to phones released after May and this is just the first major update since then.
But you’d think there would be some value in acknowledging that the Android community is capable of working together to help its customers access the latest and greatest technology. Unless, of course, it isn’t.