Android 4: Now you see it, now you don't

Google's unified mobile OS was announced in October but good luck finding it. At this point, can anyone count on it?

I know that Google's Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich" mobile OS is not a figment of my imagination. I know this because I have a Samsung Galaxy Nexus running it, Samsung Nexus S owners reported getting the Android 4 upgrade in December, and Asus Transformer Prime tablet owners began getting the update in mid-January. Plus, a small number of Wi-Fi-only Xoom users report getting Android 4 in the last few weeks. But that's all the evidence there is pointing to Android 4's existence.

The mobile OS was anticipated for much of 2011 and unveiled in October as the unified smartphone/tablet version that would bring business security, a slicker user interface, cool new capabilities such as NFC support, and a more integrated experience to better compete with Apple's iOS. But we haven't seen hide nor hair of "Ice Cream Sandwich" except for that handful of devices, and every new device so far this year is shipping with Android 2.3 "Gingerbread" for smartphones and Android 3.1 "Honeycomb" for tablets.

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Until mid-January, most Android device makers were consistent in saying to expect the Android 4 updates in February or March and a few in April for most of their smartphones and tablets -- the models designed per the Android 4 specs. Now, there are no projected dates for most devices, just endless rumors on the fanboy sites. If I didn't have a Galaxy Nexus in hand, I'd say that Google made the whole thing up in a silly attempt to slow iPhone 4S and iPad 2 sales for the holidays. (If that was the strategy, it didn't work.)

Motorola Mobility, which makes a bevy of Android smartphones and tablets, had been the most conservative in its projections; Motorola generally takes pains not to overpromise, so it's a more believable source than most. Its estimates all along have been more in the May-to-July period.

But last week Motorola announced it doesn't expect to be able to offer Android 4 upgrades for its recent smartphones and most tablets until late 2012, and it may not be able to update them all to Android 4 -- no explanation given. Also last week, when I met with AT&T and Samsung to learn about the Galaxy Note smartphone/tablet hybrid, neither could give me any idea as to when "Ice Cream Sandwich" might see the light of day on it or any other Android device beyond the Galaxy Nexus or Nexus S. They said they simply didn't know.

The tech industry moves fast, except apparently for Android. The Android 3 "Honeycomb" OS came out many months later than expected, leading to all sorts of freakishly bad Android tablets based on the smartphone version of the operating system. Android 4, which is largely based on "Honeycomb," seemed to come out much faster -- except for the fact that no tablets yet run it and just two models of smartphones do. It's not really here yet.

For all those users who bought Android devices over the holidays or after the Android announcement cornucopia at the recent Consumer Electronics Show, "Ice Cream Sandwich" may as well be a mirage. It might even turn out to be a lie in some cases, even though the device makers and carriers genuinely believed at the time they would be able to offer "Ice Cream Sandwich" upgrades to their newer, spec-compatible devices. All customers know is that 120 days after Android 4 was heralded as the next big thing and the reason to commit to an Android device -- devices now owned too long to be eligible for free returns or exchanges, I might add -- they don't have it. And they have no idea when or if they ever will.

The notion of a delay between announcement and shipment is nothing new. iOS users, for example, excitedly waited several months between Apple's July announcement of iOS 5 and its October release. But that release was real, covering all promised iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch models.

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