Google needs to get serious about solving the Android upgrade mess

While reports suggested that 60 percent of iPhone owners had upgraded to iOS 6 within days of its release, Google is still struggling to get 4.1 'Jelly Bean' over the 2 percent mark after almost three months. Google needs to work harder.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

Google may be seeing some 1.3 million new Android device activations every day, but this doesn't help those who are hoping to see their existing device get upgraded to the latest version of the mobile operating system.

And the problem is bad. Very bad.

While Google is struggling to get 2 percent of Android users up to Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" almost three months after its release, a report by Chitika Insights claims that 60 percent of iPhones are running Apple's latest mobile software, iOS 6. This means that developers are having to support an ever-increasing array of aging versions, while at the same time preventing them from making full use of new features. For consumers, it means that they are denied new features and not getting security updates that help keep their handsets and tablets safe from hackers and malware. 


By far the most popular version of Android continues to be the now aged Android 2.3 "Gingerbread". This is Google's mobile version of Windows XP, an old version of a platform that both hardware makers and consumers are clinging onto for dear life. It was the platform that was around when Android went mainstream, and as such there are a lot of devices out there running it. You can still find handsets for sale that still use "Gingerbread," even though the platform hasn't seen an update since September 2011.

Google's take on updates has wavered over the months. The official message started out as saying that upgrades didn't matter, then changed to asking handset makers to guarantee upgrades, to now helping -- somewhat unenthusiastically -- handset makers get updates out to users quicker.

But despite Google throwing its weight behind the problem, you can't assume that any Android handset you buy today will ever see an upgrade.

Like I said, it's very bad.

Problem is, it's a tough problem to solve because there are so many cooks with their hands in the Android broth.

While Google is responsible for the core Android operating system, the only handset that runs this unadulterated version of Android is Google's own Nexus line. Other handset makers customize -- some would say taint -- Android with customizations, hardware specific tweaks, third-party software, crapware, and so on.

Then carriers add their own twist to the operating system in the form of branding and more third-party software.

And all this has to happen before users get their hands on the update. Which is why it doesn't happen often. Google is primarily interested in new handset activation and increased market share above all else, not in creating a unified ecosystem. The handset makers have sold you a phone and hope to never hear from you again until it's time to buy again. And at the end of the food chain, the carriers already have you hooked up to a multi-year contract, and as such don't seem to care about what operating system your smartphone or tablet runs.

Aftermarket firmware projects such as CyanogenMod work to bypass this lengthy and laborious chain and deliver updates for hardware direct, but this is not for the faint of heart.

I see a couple of potential solutions to this massive problem. First, is to approach it the way that Apple has decided to approach the problem or updates, and cut the carriers out of the equation and send the new updates directly to the handsets. This would mean that handset makers could work with Google to get the updates to users quicker. It eliminates any heel-dragging from the carriers, but it still needs the handset makers to be cooperative.

Another option would be for Google to partner closely with certain handset makers and carriers, and work with them to bring the updates to handsets. This would require a high level of collaboration -- possibly more than even the likes of Google could muster -- but it would mean that updates would get out to the widest possible user base. This is sort of the approach that Microsoft has taken with Windows Phone, although its user base is tiny compared to that of iOS or Android, and so much easier to manage.

By working closely with some handset makers -- and not just Motorola, which is now a unit of Google -- this would pressure the others to make updates a higher priority. 

If Google is serious about shifting Android users up to the latest release as quickly as possible -- rather than just selling users a new smartphone or tablet -- then it needs to do all it can to solve this fragmentation problem. It won't be easy, it may cost Google a pile of dollars, and the solution might never be perfect, but it would show that Google was serious about solving this problem.

Image source: Google Developer Dashboard, Chitika Insights.

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