New Android phones on old software will become a thing of the past

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| July 11, 2012

Yesterday evening, Google pushed the official Jelly Bean update to the unlocked version of the Galaxy Nexus by Samsung, finally making the 4.1 version of Android available to non-attendees of the Google I/O 2012 conference. But this was more than just an update for a Nexus. It was more than a sign of the maturing of of the little green robot we all have come to know and love.

It's fuel for a smoldering fire, a stick with which many will (and have already) beat a dead horse.

I woke up this morning to a Google Reader account full of slavish pieces nitpicking over an issue with Android that likely doesn't even matter to the general populous: fragmentation. Take this Business Insider article by Steve Kovach, for example, or this piece by Jamie Lendino from PCMag. With still somewhat valid and relevant points, they reiterate what has been said of Android for three years now: the majority of Android handsets are on old software, at least one version behind the most recent iteration. And as everyone has been harping as of late, if you want to stay current with Android, just buy a Nexus.

The reason last night's Jelly Bean update was so "significant" is because it means that nearly 90 percent of handsets are now at least two versions behind 4.1. To some, that translates into a real problem; it means 90 percent of Android users don't get to relish the latest and greatest mobile features from Google – at the rate Google is churning out updates in comparison to the pace of manufacturers, they may never get to with their current handset.

What's worse is that not even some of the newest Android-powered gadgets on the market will get to right away. Last night, our own Evan Selleck explained that in just one more day, the Verizon variant of Samsung's latest flagship phone, the Galaxy S III, will launch on old software. While some may still consider Android 4.0 relatively new software, it's still one version behind and will be missing the latest (and some of the best we've ever seen) Android improvements, like Project Butter, Google Now, the new notification shade and even the newest version of the stock soft keyboard.

But Evan's purpose in writing about that was to ask – and answer – a great question: Does it really matter if you're one version behind?

To be frank, the answer is no. It doesn't. It isn't exactly enticing to know that it could be six months before you see an official update for your phone, and in a perfect world, it wouldn't or shouldn't take that long for anyone to receive an update. But as Evan says, "it isn’t the end of the world" and a little patience isn't going to kill you. If you're afraid it may, you might want to consider medial attention, or something much easier on both the wallet and conscious would be rooting and flashing a ROM.

Evan lightly details a conversation he had with a friend, the owner of a Motorola DROID RAZR. Evan explains:

"He was asking me what Google Now is, and why he should want it. I explained what it is, and what it does, and after it was all said and done, the reply was kind of eye opening:

'I can wait.'"

To be honest, the friend's response isn't all that surprising. Working less than a year in a wireless retail environment, it didn't take long to realize that most basic users (read: likely not anyone who reads about smartphones and gadgets in their spare time) don't even know what software version they're on, much less that they're one or two versions behind. If you bring up the topic of newer software, one might sound interested or even inquisitive. But chances are, it's not keeping them up at night.

And it shouldn't bother you all that much either. After all, if you expect your phone to be updated at all, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. You should never buy a phone on the assumption that it is going to be updated.

Lucky for those who do care about what version their phone is on, though, there is a solution that will keep new devices current. And, moving forward, there is no excuse for any OEM to release a phone on old software. During the opening keynote for Google I/O, Google announced the PDK, which gives both chipset makers and handset manufacturers early access to new, unfinished versions of Android long before the public gets a taste.

Before now, manufacturers and component makers didn't get to work with the latest version of Android until the source was released by Google. Now that they get early access, manufacturers will have more control over what OS version their handsets release with. To date, the method has always been: develop the phone and its features around the current version of Android and if a software update is released by Google before or around the launch, worry about updating after the fact. With the PDK open to partners, they will know about and be working with software versions months before the official build is available, meaning they can plan device launches accordingly.

So for now, fragmentation and the agonizingly slow Android update process are problematic because they still affect new devices. Even devices that are yet to be released are susceptible to old software and being outdated within days or weeks of launch. But once the PDK kicks-in, full-speed ahead, manufacturers will have the ability – note that because they have the ability doesn't mean they will – to never release a phone on old software again. That, however, says little for the slow update process, which lies more in the hands of the carrier than the manufacturer.

I'm sort of feeling the effects of fragmentation and the slow update process now as my barely two-month-old phone, the HTC One X, is already behind. It bothers me less knowing that I've had hands-on with Jelly Bean by way of two different Nexus devices. But it's aggravating that even the best phones on the market can never seem to keep up with Google.

Nonetheless, here's to the PDK and hoping it can change Android once and for all. If nothing else, here's to what could eventually be the end of new phones running old Android software.