The Flawed Android Update Process; Too Many Cooks

The Flawed Android Update Process; Too Many Cooks

Summary: The Android update cycle will continue to frustrate users, based on the flawed update process that Google has failed to address.

TOPICS: Android, Google

The Android world is getting used to seeing new accounts every day of users unhappy with the lack of an OS update for a particular handset. Google keeps madly churning out updates with tasty version names, which starts the clock running to see when (or if) a given phone will get the update. That starts the rumor mill cranking with theories why the OEM is refusing to release the update. It's a cycle that is guaranteed to continue, based on the flawed update process that Google has failed to address.

This process is not new to Android, it's been around since the birth of the smartphone. The platform creator (Google) releases a new version of the OS (Froyo, Gingerbread, etc.), which starts users clamoring for the tasty treat. The maker of a given handset (Samsung, Motorola, HTC, etc.) then takes the source code in-house and works on getting the new OS version working flawlessly on each phone they produce. If the OEM has made special modifications to the handset for a particular telco, then those have to be updated and tested on top of the basic update. New OS versions often break the OEM apps and widgets, and those must be updated to work properly.

Once the OEM work is done on a given update for a given phone, it is handed off to each carrier handling the phone to test on their network. This testing can be extensive depending on the carrier, and is necessary to make sure that carrier apps/services still work without problems. Once the new software is blessed by the carrier, a ROM image for the phone is prepared for over-the-air (OTA) distribution to the carrier's customers. This ROM creation is not trivial, as a bad ROM can have drastic consequences, including turning working customer phones into bricks. Those familiar with homebrew ROMs can attest to that, as something as simple as a corrupt download can have dire results.

This entire process can take a fair bit of time, especially if the original OS update was significant. The more things have changed, the more add-on bits get broken and must be fixed. This customization is what has contributed to Android's astounding adoption rate, but it comes with a significant toll to the update process.

Remember that each company that makes Android phones typically makes multiple models; it is why Android has grown so phenomenally. Unfortunately, multiple models at the OEM level turns each Android update into a major development effort. This effort increases exponentially with the need to specialize those updates for each carrier the OEM must support. Every layer of update development adds costs to the OEM, and more significantly to the customer, more time.

I'm not defending the OEMs nor the carriers, just pointing out the system is complicated and time-consuming. Google doesn't help matters either, with its insistence on carrying its own phone (Nexus One and now the Nexus S), for the sole purpose of having one handset that gets updates first (and easiest). It is competing with all of its partners, rather than stepping in and doing something to help smooth out the whole process.

It is time for Google to take the Apple approach with the iPhone, and take control of the OS back from the OEMs and carriers. They won't necessarily like it, but Google will come out on top in the end if Android users get every update in a reasonable amount of time. That may require reducing the level of customization open to handset makers and carriers, but so be it.

Topics: Android, Google

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Nobody minded when Baskin & Robins came out with 31 flavors

    Diversity is a good thing.<br>Besides OEMs are perfectly happy to take ownership to the degree necessary in the software development process.<br><br>It gives them freedom of choice and autonomy to do what when and how.<br><br>They didn't have that with previous smartphone O/Ses.<br><br>There will be glitches to be worked out regardless--that's life.<br><br>But I see nothing but net positives in the Android ecosystem.

    The masses won't mind OTA updates once every 3-6 months and even 6 months is reasonable to expect from a release cycle perspective, but not longer.

    If you expect more frequent updates, you are a geek and in the minority.

    And then if you are a geek, you know what to do flash your own phone anyhow.
    Dietrich T. Schmitz, ~ Your Linux Advocate
    • RE: The Flawed Android Update Process; Too Many Cooks

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate I think you are missing a very key negative. This is not really about updates, but fragmentation. Fragmentation is becoming a major issue in the andriod ecosystem. I am not only concerned with the frequency of the updates, but also the availability of the updates as my phone ages. Furthermore I am a geek and could flash my phone, but I will not flash my entire fleet of phones. Keep in mind these are tools for me and my staff to use. I like tinkering as much as the next guy, but I don't tinker with my production systems, and I won't tinker with the phones I put into my users hands. They need to work 100% of the time.
      So in short fragmentation and the update process is flawed, and represents a big negative in the andriod ecosystem.
      • RE: The Flawed Android Update Process; Too Many Cooks

        @jhuddle: Absolutely. And that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Major version upgrades a problem? Think bug fixes on exponentially growing OS-handset pairs, per carrier. It becomes impossible to trust Android with timely security updates. What do you do the next time there's a zero-day attack on Android? Scrap your entire fleet?
    • RE: The Flawed Android Update Process; Too Many Cooks

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate
      So why in the hell Windows Mobile failed? Except for its user interface and design cues from iPhone, Widgets from Yahoo! and it core os as linux derivative the architecture/design of Android is borrowed from Windows Mobile, so it also borrowed all the issues of Windows Mobile. Fragmentation, Carrier/Maker customizations are hurting the Android, if not they are not doing it today, that will eventually. I have seen Android running on top of resistive touch screens (I have nothing against the resistive touch screen and it gives you more precise and accurate location than capacitive) and the feel of android is not fluid. Google has no control on the end. They missed the main cue from Apple well when they were sitting in its board meetings. Google wanted it has to be on more devices so it could invade more number of emails and search terms of its users so it could pump more ads, there is nothing wrong, but it should have been more strict. It is becoming late for it to go back and fix the issues.
      Ram U
    • RE: The Flawed Android Update Process; Too Many Cooks

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate
      I am not a techie but I still work on IT. Android sucks, I want my iphone back!!
      • Now you're getting it, welcome back

        @Hasam1991<br><br>Thank you for your honest feedback.<br><br>PS<br>Get well Steve, we are all hoping for the best!
      • RE: The Flawed Android Update Process; Too Many Cooks

        @Hasam1991 I don't want an iPhone, you do... go get an iPhone, I'll get an android. Isn't it wonderful we have choice!
    • Yep. Freedom to buy new hardware to just upgrade the OS.

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate

      Sounds like a HUGE plus to the continued profit for the vendors while screwing the end user.

      When you have 5 current version of the OS shipping on brand new out of the box hardware, you have serious issues.
      • RE: The Flawed Android Update Process; Too Many Cooks

        Like buy an auto and it ONLY runs on "Shell" gas. Regulation needed if Companies can not behave in a "fair" manner. IF a two year contract is required then ANY and ALL updates need to be OPEN for the customer to decide IF they want it or not. OTA, is not a requirement which is the point that seems to be referred to as the longest delay. Either stop all the "BLOATWARE" and/or release the 'code' so XDA folks can (and will) provide timely updates.
      • RE: The Flawed Android Update Process; Too Many Cooks

        @heredavid - don't put too much faith in XDA guaranteeing to release thoroughly tested updates for all handsets for all carriers:
        1) The test matrix itself is a considerable challenge
        2) XDA do a pretty good job most of the time, but don't have the resources necessary to perform full network certification testing and/or thorough testing of the rest of the OS and apps.

        Most carriers agree to support the OS & software shipped when you buy the phone. They may optionally support future OS releases, but are not AND SHOULD NOT be REQUIRED to do so - the cost of forcing them to do so would make handsets triple in price.

        Put it this way, do you expect Ford to have to support installing a brand new engine into a 10 year old vehicle? Of course not. So neither should handset vendors be REQUIRED to do so either.

        There are chop shops who can fit a new engine into an old car if you so wish A buddy with a grinder and a welding torch may get it to fit, mechanically, you won't see the same levels of fuel economy and reliability that you'll get from a new vehicle. Some companies (e.g Shelby) will sell you their services along with a warranty on their work ... but only for specific vehicles & engine types that they know and have tested to work well, but they won't sell and support a 1967 Mini Cooper fitted with an F250 engine ... not unless you're willing to pay them A GREAT DEAL OF MONEY!
      • RE: The Flawed Android Update Process; Too Many Cooks

        Well put. The title should have read "Too many crooks in the kitchen". What we are seeing happen to android is every entity with their hands in the game (google included) are trying desperately to wring profit from it by taking as much out and putting as little back as they can get away with. See "The tragedy of the commons" (on wikipedia or your reference of choice) for a more eloquent explanation. Bottom line, there is too little incentive for Android to get better, so the corporations will make whatever money they can in the short term and leave it dead on the side of the road when the next big smartphone thing comes along (which is about every two years, the rate we're going.)
    • RE: The Flawed Android Update Process; Too Many Cooks

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate
      Sorry - you're way out in left field on this one.

      We've seen this kind of failure once before in another mobile operating system. Windows CE/Mobile. Microsoft would generate a new version, it would go to phone manufacturers who had no incentive to update users. If they updated their phones the carriers balked because no one was renewing a contract with them.

      Guess where Windows Mobile ends up? Yeah, rubbish heap.

      If Google doesn't start managing updates itself, then I'm afraid the Android juggernaut will grind to a halt and get tossed aside.

      Has HP got the plot? Let's hope *someone* does.
    • RE: The Flawed Android Update Process; Too Many Cooks

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate

      then you missed the main issue...

      many of these handsets are still running 1.x versions of Android because the updates are simply not being released. would you really want your Linux servers running on a 2.2.x kernel because the person who sold you the hardware wanted you to buy new hardware to get a 2.4.x or 2.6.x kernel?
    • RE: The Flawed Android Update Process; Too Many Cooks

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate. Bad analogy as BR never had a Vanilla 2.0 competing with Vanilla. Theoretically, new versions of Android are improvements. Sometimes they contain bug fixes. Take a look at all the unhappy Samsung Captivate users due to GPS problems. How long does THAT take to resolve?

      I agree that the masses aren't looking for phone updates, in general, but you better bet that those with bugs, freezes, reboots, or battery issues ARE looking for relief! And to the extent that some company's "overlay" keeps these things from being corrected, these companies deserve to suffer ONGOING BAD PRESS.

      I'm now adding "history of upgrades" to my requirements list. Sony Ericsson now loses points in my analysis, while HTC and Motorola gain. Meanwhile, I sit on the sideline.
      • GPS

        There was an OTA 2.1 fix that went out in September 2010.
        I installed it.
        Dietrich T. Schmitz, ~ Your Linux Advocate
    • RE: The Flawed Android Update Process; Too Many Cooks

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate
      You will be disappointed to note that, despite more than 6 months having lapsed from the 2.2 "Froyo" version being released, many handsets (released even after that date) are still languishing with no upgrade to 2.2 in sight. Still don't see a problem?
    • RE: The Flawed Android Update Process; Too Many Cooks

      @Dietrich T. Schmitz, Your Linux Advocate

      Gee, do we all have to be car mechanics to drive our cars?

      We are at the precipice of computers becoming everyday devices that one should not need to be a techie geek to use or maintain. There will always be hot rodders but they become the minority.

      Steve Jobs was correct.
      • RE: The Flawed Android Update Process; Too Many Cooks

        @xyzzy_ Gee, do we all have to be car mechanics to drive our cars?

        If you want to put that brand new 2011 motor in your 2010 then yes. Most people don't even maintain their cars, but they have no problems using them.
    • OEM bottle-neck

      The bottle-neck is clearly stated as being OEMs using proprietary methods rather than OpenSource. How is that Google's fault?

      Google even show by practical example that using an OpenSource route gets the job done faster but still separate companies insist on doing things the slow way. Is the article suggesting that Google should take-over the OEMs? Surely market-forces will push and pull the OEMs to look around to find a better answer than they currently use.
      Regards from Tom :)
  • This is inherent in Android's update model.

    Google cannot put the Genie back into the bottle.

    The OEM's and carriers are not going to give up their ability to deeply customize Android for their devices and target markets.

    One of the costs of Android's explosive diversification is that carriers and OEM's support of legacy handsets will wane more quickly leaving customers stranded on older versions of Android and unable to enjoy the latest and greatest apps that take advantage of newer features of the OS.

    The carriers and OEM's have little vested interest in supporting older handsets that they've typically sold at bargain-basement prices - they want users to pay to upgrade their handsets because they cannot afford the ballooning costs of supporting existing customers' devices.

    But this sucks for the user who has no guarantee that a handset they buy today will be able to run tomorrow's version of Android.

    Such is the cost of the Android model.