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Friday December 16, 2011 11:49 pm

Google’s Android Update Alliance not living up to expectations

Posted by Andru Edwards Categories: Smartphones, Google, Software

At the Google I/O conference in May, many Android phone vendors and U.S. wireless carriers made a long-awaited promise: From then on, any new Android phone would receive timely OS updates for at least 18 months following launch, as part of the then newly christened Google Update Alliance.

The back story: If you own an Android phone, you may have watched with frustration as a new version of the OS hit the market. It's almost never clear if your phone will ever get that upgrade—unlike with iOS or Windows Phones, which always get all upgrades (providing they meet the right hardware requirements). With Android, it seems to depend on the phone vendor, the specific model, the wireless carrier, the Android version itself, and whether Google sent the carrier an inflatable plastic food product as a token of its appreciation that week. Worse—and much to our chagrin—sometimes vendors make promises to customers before the sale that they don't keep once you own the phone.

Many factors contribute to this. But custom versions of Android are the key culprit, either thanks to vendor-specific enhancements (like HTC Sense, Motorola MotoBlur, and Samsung's TouchWiz, though LG, Pantech, Casio, and other vendors do it too), or carrier-specific enhancements of a more dubious nature (such as unnecessary preloaded bloatware and changes to default apps). These changes require many programming hours not just to make in the first place, but to also support and upgrade down the road—resources the carrier would rather throw at making new phones to sell you.

So the Google Update Alliance was a breath of fresh air. It sounded like everyone would finally come together, streamline their OS update timelines, and stop jerking around their customers. The thing is, while the Google Update Alliance ended up being one of the biggest stories to come out of Google I/O, we've heard almost nothing about it since then. You can bet we weren't just going to forget about it and pretend it never happened—especially after the release of Google Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), which is a huge leap in UI design and overall performance.

So seven months in, we thought we'd circle back and ask all those vendors an important question: How's it going? Here's what they had to say—and unfortunately, it's not at all good:

Motorola: "We are planning to upgrade Droid Razr Motorola Razr, Motorola Xoom (including Family Edition) and Droid Bionic by Motorola to Ice Cream Sandwich. As we add other devices to this list, we'll be sure to keep you in the loop." They ignored our specific question about the Photon 4G, the Atrix 2, the Droid 3, the Droid X2, and the Admiral, and our follow-up question that if not, how Motorola would reconcile this with the pledge it made back in May.

Samsung: "After reviewing various factors such as system requirements, platform limitations, and partner-related issues, we will consider upgrading Galaxy devices to Ice Cream Sandwich. Specific upgrade plans will be communicated separately. Samsung will stay committed to responsibility for its customers as much as possible." Our question about the Samsung Captivate Glide, the Samsung Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch, the Samsung Conquer 4G, and the Samsung Exhibit 4G was ignored, as was our follow-up question about the company keeping its Google I/O pledge.

Sprint: "Sprint will begin to rollout Google's latest version of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich, to our customers in early 2012. Ice Cream Sandwich will be available via an over-the-air update to a variety of devices, including HTC EVO 3D, HTC EVO Design 4G and other key products in our line-up. Please stay tuned for more details and exact timing." Our question about the Motorola Photon 4G, the LG Marquee, and the Samsung Conquer 4G was ignored, as was (you guessed it) our follow-up question about holding to the Google I/O pledge.

T-Mobile: We asked T-Mobile about the myTouch 4G, myTouch Q, LG DoublePlay, and Samsung Galaxy S II. "T-Mobile is coordinating with Google to deliver Android 4.0. While we don't have any information to share regarding the devices you noted ... we'll let you know when we have more details to share," a spokesperson said in response, but T-Mobile did not mention anything about Google I/O, either.

Verizon Wireless: A spokesperson confirmed two existing upgrade announcements for the HTC Rezound and the Droid RAZR, but couldn't release any more information at this time. Our questions about the Samsung Stratosphere, the Motorola Droid 3, the LG Revolution, and the HTC Droid Incredible 2, and the Google I/O pledge in general all went unanswered.

(Note: We didn't ask Sony Ericsson, since it is the only vendor that has publicly committed to upgrading its entire 2011 Xperia line. AT&T, HTC, and LG didn't respond to our requests for comment in time for publication; we'll update this story if we hear back. Of the three, HTC is far ahead, as it has pledged Ice Cream Sandwich updates for almost every recent Android phone it has released; only the HTC Rhyme was left out, which is what we asked about.)

To put it mildly, this doesn't look encouraging. The original promise wasn't about a vendor evaluating if it would issue an upgrade, or about letting us know sometime next year when it made a decision. It was that hardware permitting, all Android devices would get OS updates in a reasonable amount of time within the first 18 months.

Yet, as we close 2011 and head into 2012, we're still running into the same confused messaging, empty promises, and delayed announcements that have plagued Android OS updates from the beginning. This means that for all intents and purposes, the Google Android Update Alliance is already dead.

What's strange is that if you look at devices released before May 2011, which technically wouldn't qualify for the Android Update Alliance pledge, some vendors have actually promised Ice Cream Sandwich updates for those older devices. LG, for example, recently promised updates for its popular Optimus line, despite its 2010 launch and 600MHz processors. (We were thinking 1-GHz single-core as a baseline for Ice Cream Sandwich, since we've seen official demos of actual devices with that class of chip running Android 4.0.)

Sadly, our hopes for reduced Android fragmentation may not pan out. It will never disappear entirely, of course. By definition, there will always be issues with third-party app compatibility, because Android devices support multiple screen resolutions, button layouts, and a wide array of CPUs. But a stable, consistent OS version available across all current model phones would have helped both consumers and developers tremendously—not to mention all of the other benefits you'd get with each OS update. Unfortunately, it looks like we're still not going to get that reassurance.

This article, written by Jamie Lendino, originally appeared on PCMag.com and is republished on Gear Live with the permission of Ziff Davis, Inc.

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