When Android upgrades go bad, users are left in the lurch

Carriers, handset makers, and Google are to blame for a splintered platform that all but guarantees incompatibilities and frustrated users

There've been complaints for a few months on the Web about problems encountered by users when upgrading their Android smartphones from the "Eclair" 2.1 version to the "Froyo" 2.2 version, particularly involving Samsung and Sprint. Of course, both brands are popular Android sales channels, so this could simply reflect market share. Additionally, a percentage of the population always has upgrade problems, no matter what the operating system or device is -- the vagaries of hardware, OS, and applications mean unexpected gotchas sometimes surface.

But what the steady drumbeat of complaints shows is the flawed nature of how Google handles its Android updates. Given that Google updates its mobile OS about twice a year (coming soon is Android "Gingerbread" 2.3, already in Google's own smartphone), the problem will only worsen as more people buy Android smartphones.

[ Follow Galen on Twitter. | Updated for Android 3.0: Learn how to manage iPhones, Androids, BlackBerrys, and other smartphones in InfoWorld's 20-page Mobile Management Deep Dive PDF special report. ]

What's happening today is that each carrier and device maker has to work out when to issue an upgrade for each model, which means that upgrades can happen six months after Google releases a new Android version -- or never. Often, the device makers don't really understand the OS well enough to know that something they (or, more often, the firm they subcontracted to) did to customize their device or the Android UI will break under the new OS, so there's greater risk of user problems surfacing with an upgrade.

Sometimes, users get alerted to an Android upgrade (presumably via Google), only to discover that the upgrade hadn't been tested by the device maker or the carrier. When that upgrade breaks, the device maker and carrier blame Google, which has no human beings to provide support, just email systems that spew back pointless replies. Users are bounced among the three parties, none of which takes the responsibility.

The result: Customers are left in the lurch, often forced to restore their devices to the factory condition -- and lose all the apps, music, and so on they loaded into them. The Android Market does track what a user bought, so you can re-download paid apps at no charge. But the free apps aren't saved, and all your other settings are gone.

Any server-based data, such as Gmail contacts, are also available when you connect the reset device, but Google has no complete backup facility like the iTunes application that the iPhone and iPad use to restore your data, apps, and media after a crash, remote wipe, or device replacement. Android users can purchase utilities that do some of what iTunes does, but most customers don't think anything bad will happen to them, so they don't buy such tools until it's too late. And they shouldn't have to.

Why Android devices can't be updated at the same time
The basic problem is one that has plagued Google from the beginning: its decision to make Android an open platform that device makers were free to modify and deploy as they chose. There are signs that Google now regrets this tossing its mobile OS "child" into the heartless wilds where hungry device makers and cellular carriers roam, but even if Google asserts control over Android, millions of users are still in the woods. (Google didn't respond to my request to comment.)

The consequences of Google's decision to let go of control over Android once it was deployed in devices were exacerbated by the dysfunctional realities of the cellular market. Back before there was an iPhone, cell phones were one-off products. A manufacturer like Nokia or Samsung could have hundreds of models every year. Each would be customized for a specific cellular carrier and with a distinct set of features, usually so that carriers could offer phones at several prices, as well as to have both the flip phone and "candy bar" shapes available. Compatibility and upgradability were never part of the design, and that mentality remains even today.

In the cell phone days, the carrier would sell each device for a few months, maybe a year, then replace it with a new (slightly changed) model, so it could always be hawking the latest and greatest. Some of these phones had extra features, such as AOL-like "Web" portals, that were designed to extract high usage fees from customers, but by and large they were phones you talked with. Even the BlackBerry messaging devices were designed this way, even if the basic messaging functionality remained the same across models and carriers.

In that one-off cell phone world, the fact that they were all different didn't matter much to customers. They were no more unique than alarm clocks or tape recorders. You didn't have data to move from one to the next -- except your phone numbers, which your carrier would do for you -- and you certainly didn't have applications.

Google is only now getting it: Smartphones are like computers, not toasters
The came the iPhone, redefining the cell phone as the smartphone, which meant it was really a computing platform. Apple, as the inventor of the first popular personal computer, knew exactly what being a platform meant -- and so should anyone who uses a PC. When Microsoft or Apple releases an OS update or upgrade, users expect it to work on their recent-model computers, to work with their applications, and to retain their data. Although human tech support has largely gone by the wayside, Apple still provides it (at a cost) at its Apple Stores, and many shops will provide fee-based support for Windows PCs. Plus, most users know they're supposed to back up their computers before an upgrade, an act Mac OS X makes trivially easy and that Windows enables, though not so easily.

Because Apple understood that a smartphone is like a computer in that it will be upgraded over time, it forced the cellular carriers selling its device to let Apple manage the OS update process. Carriers couldn't delay an update for their own testing or create incompatibilities by having a "special" version of the device, so everyone got the upgrade at the same time. With Apple as the sole maker of its devices, there were no issues with dumb device makers getting in the way of OS upgrades.

I'm not suggesting this is easy, by the way. The Verizon iPhone, despite being in development for a year, isn't on the same update schedule as the rest of Apple's iOS devices because of hardware differences involving the CDMA radio used by Verizon but no other iPhone carrier. The versions are very close, and Apple says it will get them back in sync this year.

Google let the device makers and carriers treat Android devices like they had the previous generation of dumb cell phones, leading to the problematic upgrade cycles and compatibility that many Android users experience. If you buy an iPhone or iPad, you know you'll get at least a couple OS upgrades out of it and at the same time as everyone else -- not so with Android.

Having realized that basic mistake, in the last year, Google has begun issuing OS update alerts to some devices independent of the cellular carriers. It's not clear how Google decides which devices get that alert, or whether it's up to the carrier or device maker to block that alert. What is clear is that it's not perfectly managed, so some people receive these update alerts even when they shouldn't get.

Google needs to take charge of its platform so that it doesn't fall apart
Google needs to rein all this in and change its licensing terms so that it retains the authority to issue updates to Android devices -- it needs to stabilize both the platform and the playing field. Otherwise, Android will become like Linux PCs: a confusing morass of splinter versions that developers can't afford to deal with and only engineers can keep working.

The sad fact is that if Google does what it needs to do, current Android users will have to be left out, with Google setting this unification policy for any devices using, say, "Gingerbread" 2.3 or "Ice Cream" 2.4 -- that is, devices not yet on the market. Device makers that tweak the UI or change the OS would do so at their own risk. There are rumors that Google is now demanding approval of such changes -- if true, doing so is a good idea and would allow responsible variations.

But how could Google do this given its platform's open nature? Easy: Although Android is an open source platform (at least for the smartphone version), the Android trademark remains Google's property. For a device maker or carrier to use the Android brand would mean to accept Google's control over the update process and OS and UI integrity. Device makers and carriers that don't agree can make their own private-label devices based on the Android source code but not called Android (fat chance!).

Or they can turn to an alternative mobile OS. That OS won't be iOS, as Apple isn't stupid enough to do what Google did. That leaves Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and RIM -- all shrinking players that device makers and carriers aren't likely to get much more mileage out of, though HP's WebOS could break out. Even these companies have begun to assert more control over their platforms, perhaps also understanding that smartphones are computing platforms, not disposable one-off appliances.

This article, "When Android upgrades go bad, users are left in the lurch," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

From CIO: 8 Free Online Courses to Grow Your Tech Skills
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies