I love Android. I love it to bits. It's lighthearted, ludicrously flexible, and boasts the best tech mascot since Tux the Linux penguin first waddled into our hearts. Google's quirky OS makes the tech world a brighter place, and can provide the perfect antidote to the stern rigidity of Apple.
But Android has a serious problem in the way it handles updates, and it's a threat more deadly than any lawsuit.
We all scream for Ice Cream
Android 4.0, aka Ice Cream Sandwich, is coming soon, so close we can almost taste its icy sweetness. But of the heaving masses of Android users out there, many will never get Ice Cream Sandwich on their phones, and almost none have any notion of when exactly they can expect the latest version to arrive on their device of choice.
Let that sink in for a moment. The vast majority of Android users, who have paid hundreds of pounds to be part of the Android ecosystem, have literally no idea when, if at all, they will get the next version of the software.
That is madness. Part of the appeal of an Android phone or tablet is that you get to hop aboard the update train, with the promise that your device of choice will soon be so much more, that it will grow and evolve along with the operating system itself.
But like every train in operation in the UK today, the Android update train is rubbish. It's always late, and you expect to be held at numerous signals, and in every tunnel. No refunds.
Whose fault is this? It's everyone's fault. From Google itself, to the network carriers who delay updates even further, to the manufacturers who actually make these gadgets, everyone is failing miserably at what should be a simple task -- placing a software update on to a mobile phone.
At CNET UK we're constantly overwhelmed with readers asking when they can expect the latest version of Android on their particular mobile. And usually we have no answer except, "When they can be bothered," because the manufacturers who make these phones stay infuriatingly silent on the subject.
Why are we waiting?
HTC, for example, has promised that its Sensation phones, along with the Evo 3D, will be getting an update to Android 4.0 early next year. That's vague, and a pant-wettingly long wait for anyone eager to try the latest version, but worse -- the company hasn't even deigned to mention all the other phones it makes.
When will the HTC Desire, Desire HD or Desire S get Ice Cream Sandwich? HTC says it's "continuing to assess [its] product portfolio, so stay tuned for more updates on device upgrades". That's such an insultingly low amount of information that a company representative may as well have come round your house and slapped you about the chops with a big wet fish.
We wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if the original HTC Desire never gets Ice Cream Sandwich -- the pared-down version of Gingerbread HTC eventually squeezed onto that phone was an admission that the Desire's hardware wouldn't handle another burst of demanding new software.
Fair enough. Fixed hardware can't keep up with new software forever. But what of the newer Desire HD and Desire S phones? The Desire HD is barely a year old, and we reviewed the Desire S in March of this year.
If we had to guess, we'd say these phones will probably get Ice Cream Sandwich at some point next year.
But you know what? We shouldn't have to guess, and the fact that we do is proof that Android suffers from a massive communication breakdown across the board.
Desire HD owners, for example, should have been given an estimated upgrade date shortly after Ice Cream Sandwich was formally announced, or else they should have been told straight away that their phones would no longer be furnished with future updates, so owners could start thinking of alternative uses for them, like propping up wobbly tables or shoeing a horse.
When's the Samsung Galaxy S2 getting Ice Cream Sandwich? We've heard sometime from April next year. The Motorola Razr and Xoom 2 tablet? Again, 2012 -- despite the fact that Motorola is currently being purchased by the company that actually makes Android. The LG Optimus 2X? LG is "currently in the process of planning" an update to 4.0, but seeing as the 2X only got Gingerbread last week, you probably shouldn't hold your breath.
How does it make you feel?
How does this neglect make Android users feel? It makes them feel like wanting an update to their phone's software is asking a massive favour of these companies, like you should take your begging bowl and your shoddy little mobile back to your cave and stop distracting these monolithic organisations from the business of building next year's must-have mobile.
Our readers agree. While I was typing this article, a commenter opined on our Facebook wall that he felt "tricked" by HTC's "relentless assembly line" that left his recently cutting-edge phone seemingly forgotten in less than a year. Feedback in our comments section has been equally bitter in tone.
Sony Ericssion is the best of a sorry bunch, at least promising to update all of its 2011 phones to Ice Cream Sandwich. But wouldn't you have thought that would go without saying?
Maybe this isn't the manufacturers' fault -- maybe Google is failing to communicate with its Android partners, or not giving them early code or enough warning when it comes to updates. But it doesn't really matter who's fault it is, what matters is that the way Android phones receive updates is borked.
Brace for the inevitable comparison with Apple.
Android used to be better than Apple at updates, because you could get them over the air, without having to plug your phone into the swamp-abomination that is iTunes. But now the tables are turned.
When Apple announced iOS 5, it said the update would be available for the iPhone 4, both iPads, third and fourth-generation iPod touch models and the iPhone 3GS, but not the iPhone 3G. Sad news for 3G owners, but at least they knew where they stood with their three-year-old mobile.
And when iOS 5 went live on 12 October, it went live for all those devices, rather than being bled out over a period of months. This morning iOS 5.0.1 was made available as an over the air update to all those gadgets running iOS 5, and it was easy to install.
Apple's approach is working. Last week we reported that Android Gingerbread is now running on 44 per cent of Android devices, since it became available just under a year ago. Meanwhile I've seen stats that indicate that iOS 5 is running on almost 40 per cent of iOS devices, having been available for only a month.
Android users have endured weeks of Apple fans' incessant yammering and gloating over a new version of iOS, while they will be forced to wait. They know there's an exciting new version of Android out there somewhere, but unless they want to attempt some highly technical jiggery-pokery (or of course buy a brand-new Samsung Galaxy Nexus) it will remain hopelessly out of reach.
Android is supposed to be open, it's supposed to be liberating and free, it's supposed to be the opposite of the ruthless, corporate, closed-off, profit-driven march that so many see in Apple's approach to tech. What happened, Android? You used to be cool.
If you'd asked me a year ago what the biggest strengths of Android were, the list would have gone like this:
- Flash support
- A huge degree of customisation
- Interesting updates that bring new features
- Adorable mascot
But now mobile Flash is going away, and updates to the latest version of Android are either arriving so late they're no longer exciting, or they're reserved for smart phones that are lucky enough to have been released within the last few weeks.
I'm sure I'm not the only one looking at Android smart phones and wondering whether I really need to make my phone background look like it's on fire, and just how much love I can find in that little robot's pale round eyes.
Okay, my love for Droidy will never fade. But Android is having a tough enough time of it anyway with courtroom assaults from Apple, and the Nokia Lumia 800 suddenly making Windows Phone look much more appealing -- the last thing it needs is to be screwing things up from within.
Android needs to fight back. It needs its allied companies to co-ordinate to bring updates to customers as soon as they're baked, so everyone with an Android in their pocket feels like they're on the cutting edge of tech. Because the cutting edge is a nice place to be. I've been there. There are mints on the pillows.
What do you think about Android? Is the best still yet to come, or are update delays hampering your enjoyment of Google's OS? Let us know in the comments section below, or on our Facebook wall.