One of the most widespread criticisms I hear leveled against Android smartphones and tablets is that getting operating system updates for specific hardware can be next to impossible. In fact, about the only way you can be sure of being able to run the latest Android operating system is to buy a device with the OS already installed.
Who's to blame for this update mess is a matter for debate, but Google is putting in place a plan that should help it deflect the responsibility for absent updates away from itself and towards the hardware makers themselves.
At last week's I/O conference, Google announced that it would make available a Platform Development Kit (PDK) for chipset vendors and other hardware developers to allow them to prepare for and port new Android updates to their existing hardware lineup.
According to Hugo Barra, director of product management for Android, the new PDK is "like an SDK, but for Android hardware developers". The PDK will contain the necessary source code and low-level API documentation required for hardware OEMs to port Android over to their hardware. Barra said that the PDK would be available to hardware partners about two to three months before the platform release date for all future Android versions.
"PDK enables Android OEMs and chipset makers to innovate in parallel with Google," says Barra, "and ensures the latest Android release can be well-optimized for their hardware".
This sort of cooperation between Google and the hardware makers is long overdue because it's clear that the existing system wasn't working.
An example of how badly broken the existing system is comes in the form of the Motorola Droid RAZR. When this handset was released eight months ago it was revealed that it ran Android version 2.3.6 "Gingerbread" despite being unveiled on the exact same day as the Galaxy Nexus was released, a handset powered by the then new Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich". Then last week, while Google was showing off Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" at the I/O conference, Motorola -- a company that Google recently acquired -- belatedly released an Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" update for the Droid RAZR.
It remains to be seen whether the introduction of a PDK will actually encourage hardware makers to offer support for the latest version of Android sooner and to more hardware. We'll have to wait until the next major Android release to see if it actually works. However, releasing the PDK will allow Google to point the finger of blame at the OEMs when quizzed as to why updates for a particular handset aren't forthcoming.
This news comes shortly after Microsoft announced that its upcoming incarnation of Windows Phone -- Windows Phone 8 -- wouldn't be compatible with any existing Windows Phone 7.x hardware.
The only company that seems to have the issue of smartphone updates figured out is Apple, which makes updates available to supported hardware automatically as soon as they are available and allows end users to install them at their leisure.
Image source: Google.