Is Motorola right to blame update latency on hardware?

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| February 9, 2012

One of the remaining issues with Android, despite the Android Update Alliance that formed in April of last year, is software updates. The alliance between Google and its partner manufacturers was brought together in an attempt to ensure new devices would receive updates for no less than 18 months after launch. With Google cracking down on customizations, we figured updates might be faster this go around, too.

However, little has changed since before the alliance. Updates are still taking forever to reach new devices. New phones are still shipping with old software. Older phones may not receive an update at all. And we're all still pretty much in the dark despite OEMs actually speaking up and attempting to be more transparent about updates.

Easily one of the most vocal this time around, though, has been Motorola. Just a couple weeks before Android 4.0 was made official, Motorola announced they would make us aware of their update plans within four weeks of the software's launch. Like they promised, their website was updated with some tentative and uninformative plans. On top of that, there were some very recent devices that went without mention. Ice Cream Sandwich update plans from Motorola's site reads:

"We are planning to upgrade DROID RAZR™ by Motorola, Motorola RAZR™, Motorola XOOM™ (including MOTOROLA XOOM™ Family Edition) and DROID BIONIC™ by Motorola to Ice Cream Sandwich. We will provide more precise guidance on timing after post-public push of Ice Cream Sandwich by Google, as well as any possible additions to this list of devices."

Take note of the bold text, as the list apparently isn't finished. But that is something I will touch on later.

When Motorola provided this bit of information, they included a very basic list of things that have to happen before users can enjoy new software (visit the original piece for a more in-depth explanation):

  • Merge and adapt the new release for different device hardware architecture(s) and carrier customizations
  • Stabilize and ‘bake’ the result to drive out bugs
  • Submit the upgrade to the carriers for certification
  • Perform a Customer pre-release
  • Release the upgrade

Nonetheless, Motorola (along with every other Android OEM) is catching flak for outrageous update latency and top to bottom software customizations. Customers (myself included) are always going on about how they would rather have pure, stock software over Motorola Applications Platform or Sense UI and how these customizations are one of the larger reasons that software updates take so long.

That's not entirely false, but Motorola blames the latency on hardware, not their customizations. Christy Wyatt, senior vice president and general manager of Motorola's Enterprise Business Unit, explains:

"When Google does a release of the software ... they do a version of the software for whatever phone they just shipped. The rest of the ecosystem doesn't see it until you [end users] see it. Hardware is by far the long pole in the tent, with multiple chipsets and multiple radio bands for multiple countries. It's a big machine to churn."

In other words, Motorola, HTC, Samsung and every other OEM that wants to fit their devices with the latest Android version have to alter the software to be compatible with their own processors, radios and other components, which undoubtedly slows things down. Only after that do they begin to apply the customizations and proceed to submit the update to the carriers.

I will agree with Motorola to an extent – hardware is largely the issue, as they're simply reapplying a lot of the interface customizations. But their explanation is only a half truth. Going back to the incomplete list of devices eligible for the Android 4.0 update, this only covers two of Motorola's latest handsets. The DROID RAZR MAXX is a given, as is the DROID 4, which has yet to be released. But what about the DROID 3? The DROID X2? Both of these devices launched in 2011, still well within 18 months.

Update priority is given to the latest devices, making customers with older devices feel forgotten, unsupported and largely second-rate. But the real issue here is still hardware. There is simply too much of it. Recently, Motorola – along with other OEMs – has been pretty bad about churning out phone after phone and only changing a couple numbers on the spec sheets. It's to the point where customers are on edge, starting petitions (over bootloaders and the perpetual launching of phones) and vowing to never buy Motorola products again.

The truth is, if Motorola didn't have seven or more similar but different devices that they have to tweak software updates for, they wouldn't be in such a bind. However, they now have their hands full and a growing backlog of devices to update. Even if they update one phone quickly, there are still several phones and millions of customers in waiting.

Yeah, hardware is the issue.