Should manufacturers wait to release phones with current software?

Taylor Martin
 from Concord, NC
Published: November 10, 2011

Software updates and fragmentation – a sore spot for Android fans is a seemingly never-ending scab for anti-droids to constantly pick at. Our own Sydney Myers took it upon herself to crunch some numbers and quantify the depth of the fragmentation on Android. The results were more or less unsurprising; roughly 102 million (of 190 million) Android users are stuck at least one version behind the latest software. Sure, things are a bit out of hand, but there was one particular piece that caught my attention.

Of roughly 103 Android phones that were released between November 2010 and November 2011, 44 of them were released with old software, one version behind the current firmware. Of those 44, only half (22) were ever updated to either 2.2 or 2.3 from 2.1 or 2.2, respectively. The remaining 22 are still one version behind, waiting to be updated.

You may recall that back at the end of May, I wrote an article titled, "Why are most Android phones still shipping with Froyo?" The latest phone software, Gingerbread, was released at the beginning of December. Almost six months after launch, manufacturers were still pumping phones out running year-old software.

Probably one of the most notable post-Gingerbread devices to launch with Froyo was the ThunderBolt. A would-be great device was greatly held back and much of its luster was lost by launching with old software. (Not to mention it was quickly followed-up with the HTC Sensation 4G and EVO 3D, both of which shipped with Gingerbread.) The ThunderBolt landed in late March, which was three and a half months after the release of Gingerbread – what should have been plenty of time for HTC to make the necessary changes to the software and have it running relatively smoothly. Instead, HTC continued their shortsighted launch of the ThunderBolt, which only received its Gingerbread update last month, seven months after the device's launch and a full 10 months after Gingerbread left the oven.

This is unacceptable and only one of many cases. In short, manufacturers should never release a phone with an old version of software.

On the bright side, half of this problem (software updates and even fragmentation) will theoretically be solved by the Android Update Alliance that was formed by Google in May. Thus far, the Alliance hasn't made a major dent on the fragmentation issues at hand. But we won't get the full picture until the 18 month mark hits for most 2011 devices. That said, the next version of Android is assumed to be only a week or so from being official. From the moment the Galaxy Nexus launches, with Ice Cream Sandwich in tow, the clock will be ticking; partner OEMs have a set amount of time to get the latest software to customers. Here's to hoping they can stick to their rigorous schedules and put an end to update woes.

Even if the turnaround on ICS updates are fairly quick, however, it still leaves to question future phones and what OS version they will ship with. At what point will OEMs start shipping phones with Ice Cream Sandwich instead of Gingerbread? Will all new phones – phones made in 2012 – ship with Ice Cream Sandwich? Will software updates of current phones take precedence over upcoming phones?

There are several ways this could go down, but there is only one way it should go down. No Android phone, post-Ice Cream Sandwich launch, should be released running anything but Ice Cream Sandwich. This should be something that Google dictates in their terms. If a manufacturer cannot apply their necessary changes and customizations to the stock software before the scheduled launch date, the phone should be delayed, not shipped with old software and placed on the back burner for a few months. This adds to fragmentation and only makes matters worse for the OEM and consumer.

Normally, I would say that latency and delays are usually the difference between a long life and instant-obsolescence of a device. But a month or two delay for latest version software is well worth it, especially if the phone were to release with old software and still be several more months out from its ICS update.

Personally, I feel that we wouldn't even have this problem if Android manufacturers hadn't churned out over 100 phones since November of last year. Instead of each company focusing on 20 or more devices annually, they could focus on making five or six very solid devices. This whole situation could be avoided and wouldn't be such a cluster. Kudos to Google for making an attempt, but as Sydney said, a lot of the damage has already been done. We can only hope that Ice Cream Sandwich marks a new beginning for Android OEMs and software turmoils.

How do you stand on this issue, readers? Is there any reasonable circumstance for a manufacturer to release a phone with old software? Should they postpone a device launch until they have a stable version of the latest software up and running? Should custom skins and heavy customizations take precedence over newer firmware?

Image via BGR