What the Android update consortium must do to help consumers

One of the announcements made by Google addressed the lack of consistent OS updates at the consumer level. Here's what Google must do to make the update process as good as it can be.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor

The Google I/O event is underway and the Android folks released news in a continual stream to fire up the faithful. One of the most important announcements made yesterday by Google addressed a common complaint of Android phone owners, the lack of consistent OS updates at the consumer level. Jason Hiner detailed the announcement for ZDNet, and pointed out the consortium has good intentions to address the update problem. Unfortunately, Google hasn't nailed down the finer points of what the update process will bring to the table, and as is always the case in efforts like this the devil is in the details that will emerge later. Here's what Google must get the consortium to agree on to make the update process as good as it can be for the end-user.

Google has done a good job in gathering the proper members for the update consortium to have a chance to make a difference. These members consist of the major U.S. carriers along with the top Android handset makers, the two groups usually blamed for lack of timely updates. Unfortunately, Google admitted after the announcement that the consortium is in the talking stage, with no firm process in place to get updates onto consumer's devices.

Like many who cover the mobile space, I have been hard on Google about the abysmal Android update process to date. My experience covering this segment makes it clear that nothing short of a written procedure, signed by the consortium members, has a chance to get the job done. Here are my recommendations for the procedure to see it fulfill the stated objective.

Nail down the time window. Google has stated that all Android devices will get "timely" OS updates for 18 months after the device is released. It is critical to define "timely" as an exact period of time in which parties have to get each update to the end-user. No excuses for delays are acceptable, state it plainly and firmly.

Define exactly what updates are promised. Android updates are oft-discussed and loosely released, and for this to work Google must formalize the release process. The consortium (and end-user) must know in advance when a given update will be formally released by Google, to start the meter running for the timely updates. The agreement with the consortium must detail if all minor updates are to be distributed, or only major (Froyo, Gingerbread, etc.) updates. If the latter, the update agreement needs to outline when minor updates should be included, as some fix major bugs in Android. Consumers need to get these fixes, which are currently the ones seldom distributed by the parties involved. Google also needs to better reflect the nature of a given update with version numbering. Froyo was version 2.2, Gingerbread 2.3 and Honeycomb is 3.0. This loose version numbering won't work with a formal update process and needs to be changed by Google.

Dish out penalties for update release failures. It won't change things much for end-users if companies continue to hold up updates because they can. The only way this update process will get better if Google holds the parties responsible, and that means more than a slap on the wrist when updates don't get to the consumer. No matter what Google may think, good intentions on the part of consortium members is not enough. Consumers deserve to get what they are promised.

Detail the required update period for each device. Google stated that each device will get timely updates for 18 months after release, and consumers need to know at purchase time what that means. Consumers don't want to buy a shiny new phone, only to be told later that they only get updates for two months as their model has been on the market for over a year. Committing to updates for a defined period requires letting the buyer know at purchase time how long he/she can expect updates.

If Google and its partners are serious about getting a good update process in place, it must be done correctly from the beginning. Good intentions are rarely good enough in business, and this is very big business we are talking about. Define the process accurately, and communicate that to consumers so they know what to expect. It is only natural to want support for purchases, and this is the chance for Google to get it right.

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