Will Ice Cream Sandwich mark the end of Android update woes?

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| October 25, 2011

One of Google's main goals with Ice Cream Sandwich is to fight the growing problem of fragmentation. From day numero uno, Android manufacturers have struggled to keep up with Google's OS upgrade pace. Even after 11 months of Gingerbread being available, only 24 percent of users have been upgraded to the latest software. Froyo, which released in May of 2010 is what the majority, 55.9 percent, of Android users are still using.

We are now on the brink of Google releasing Ice Cream Sandwich, and manufacturers are manning the guns. During an interview at the AsiaD conference, Andy Rubin made claims that some Android phones would begin to see their upgrade to 4.0 mere weeks after the launch of the Galaxy Nexus. This could simply be in reference to the existing Nexus devices, or it could mean OEMs are jumping the gun this time. That said, I wouldn't expect a non-Google phone to receive ICS before 2012.

Just based on the response from two major manufacturers, however, I have a feeling things might go a little more smoothly this time around. Motorola has announced plans to announce (yes, it is ridiculous as it sounds) their upgrade plans within six weeks of Google officially releasing Ice Cream Sandwich. HTC also chimed in on the matter just one day after the announcement, stating:

"Our goal for Android updates is to give every customer an improved user experience, which means balancing each phone's unique hardware, HTC Sense experience and the Android kernel. While our goal is to upgrade as many of our recent devices as possible, we are committed to maintaining every phone's performance and usability first. Please stay tuned for more updates on specific device upgrade plans."

That doesn't say much for when we can expect an ICS update for an HTC or Motorola device, and I wouldn't hold my hopes too high. HTC has been up and down about firmware upgrades over the years. They were the one of the first to upgrade their flagship devices, like the EVO and Incredible, to Froyo. But with Gingerbread, they've been much more lax about it. Devices that launched after June shipped with 2.3, but many devices that landed prior to June have yet to get a taste (or are just now getting their taste ... again) of Gingerbread.

It's worth noting that Motorola – even at six months – has easily been the quickest about churning out Gingerbread updates. Most of their devices that were slated to get Gingerbread were ready to be updated by June, whereas some HTC and Samsung devices have still yet to see Gingerbread.

And Samsung? I don't think I even need to elaborate on Samsung when it comes to software updates. They didn't even finish their Froyo updates until nearly 12 months after the software was released. A serious backlash from raging US customers seemed to have straightened them up a bit. Hopefully, they have their act together for ICS.

Over the past year, Google has expressed their concerns with fragmentation and painfully slow updates several times. OEMs that wish to use Android now have to sign non-fragmentation clauses and they must pass their plans by Andy Rubin himself to have any official backing by Google. In other words, if they want Google's Apps (Market, Maps, Voice, etc.), they must abide by Google's rules. These major changes have taken place since Gingerbread was officially released last December, and all we can do is hope things will change for the better.

My guess is that Google is going to force OEMs to make much more subtle changes to the stock Ice Cream Sandwich interface. HTC's Sense UI is almost a complete overhaul of the stock Android experience, and Samsung's TouchWiz 4.0 (and prior) interface was pretty heavily themed, too. But we've seen both Sense and TouchWiz in their Honeycomb versions and the theming is much more lightweight – distinct enough to tell it's not stock Android, but light enough that changes shouldn't take OEMs eight or nine months to make before pushing out updates. As Ice Cream Sandwich is the fusion of tablet and smartphone software, I'm led to assume (and hope) Google will restrict customizations in Ice Cream Sandwich similarly. This is step one in bringing faster software updates to consumers – that is, if OEMs aren't going to give users a choice. (Step two is making less devices.)

The good news is that coming from Google's own Matias Duarte, Ice Cream Sandwich should "theoretically work on any 2.3 device." But Evan made a great observation that Duarte's quote begs another question: are "2.3 devices" any phone that has or will be upgraded to 2.3? If a device has yet to be upgraded to 2.3, will it ever see 4.0, even if it's capable of running both? Such devices may only be upgraded to 2.3 and for a lack of caring or trying, manufacturers may put them on the back burner for the foreseeable future.

All we can do is sit and wait. Here's to hoping we're not waiting until June before we hear anything ...

Image via IBTimes