Android = diversity! You’ve probably heard this one before, but what does it actually mean? While it’s a fact that the principle of diversity is as valid as ever in the mobile industry, different groups of people have varied opinions on how useful the diversity of the Android ecosystem actually is, in its current state.
If you happen to notice that the tones widely range from the temperate, on to optimistic, and back to pessimism or even frustration, don’t worry because we’re in this together! If you then start noticing that the general idea of Android fragmentation is one the topics that really drives readers to leave a comment, don’t panic, you are not alone! It’s like all Android fans are talking about it one form or another, but who’s to blame us?
It’s not only people who complain about their device not making it to the device list that will receive official updates, or those staggered by the fact that their top-end smartphone is still not updated to the latest OS (as Google unveils yet another update). You’ll also encounter those who go for custom MODs to get much more timely unofficial updates, or those who actually leave comments hoping that an unreleased device will be updated to the latest version of Android by the time it is released. All these people make it obvious that while fragmentation is not a sign of the apocalypse, it should be addressed much more seriously than it currently is.
Who is to blame
The Android experience starts with Google’s development of the OS, the manufacturers build the device and all the money goes to the carriers. Jokes aside, these are the three main parts that must work together to bring OS updates to your Android device. While the US is a market where carriers play by different rules, throughout the rest of the globe, carriers tend to release updates reasonably fast once the manufacturer has it ready for customization. So they are but a small part of the problem (again, on a global scale, things reverse dramatically if we’re to limit this discussion to the US alone).
In conclusion, the problem must lie with the manufacturers, as when Google unveils a new update, it becomes instantly available to all Android manufacturers so they can immediately start working on updating their devices.
In fact, starting with Jelly Bean, Google will release a PDK (Product Development Kit) to Android manufacturers months before the OS is actually ready to go. This way, Google is trying to make the update process go faster, and it’s an idea that should work well in the long run. But while future PDKs will be released to all manufacturers at the same time, with Jelly Bean, Google has decided to work with only a few selected partners, so the problem will not be definitively solved with Jelly Bean.
Now that you know that manufacturers are (at large) to blame for the fragmentation problem, I’ll go on and rank Android manufacturers by the speed at which I think they will deliver Jelly Bean updates to their existing devices.
ASUS officials have announced that they’ve made it a goal to update their Transformer line of tablets to Android 4.0 ICS as soon as possible, a principle demonstrated when they brought Android 4.0 to the ASUS Transformer Prime in early January. The original Transformer was also updated to ICS in February.
I would say that ASUS has the biggest chance of being the first tablet maker to update its devices to Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, as they are also the makers of the Google Nexus 7, the first tablet to ever run Android 4.1. ASUS also recently became the first tablet manufacturer to confirm Jelly Bean updates for its devices, as it has recently announced that the Transformer Pad 300, Prime and Pad Infinity will get the new Android version “in the coming months”.
Acer has officially updated the Acer Iconia Tab A500 and the Iconia Tab A100 to Android 4.0 ICS back in late April, the same month they were launched. The Iconia Tab A200, launched in January received its Android 4.0 update in February. ACER really did the right thing here, as it was only after the ICS updates that their Iconia line of tablets was able to distinguish itself as one with true potential. If they can’t provide a fast update to Android 4.1, they will surely lose some customers if ASUS beats them to the challenge, so I’m guessing they will do their best.
Archos have updated two of their best tablets, the Archos 80 G9 and Archos 101 G9 in late March, so chances are that they will not hesitate releasing a Jelly Bean update to as much of their current line of budget tablets as possible; Jelly Bean’s Project Butter should be even more evident on mid-end devices. I’m a firm believer that ARCHOS will start updating their devices sooner than many of the big brands, although chances are that they were not included in the PDK program.
Note: While Lenovo and Toshiba did not seem very anxious to update their tablets to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (both manufacturers did not issue ICS updates for their tablets until June), the wait for Jelly Bean could turn out to be shorter. I just don’t expect them to be faster than the three manufacturers above. We’ll talk about Samsung in the next chapter.
HTC updated the HTC Sensation and Sensation XE to Android 4.0 in March, the Sensation 4G, the Sensation XL, the Amaze 4G and the AT&T Vivid in May, so it’s not doing as badly as other manufacturers when it comes to updating their smartphones to the latest Android version. However, HTC’s pre-ICS flagship, the HTC Rezound is still running the outdated Android 2.3 Gingerbread, as is the Droid Incredible 2 and the EVO design 4G.
The Taiwanese manufacturer was rumored to be included in the PDK beta project, and is also the first top-tier company to confirm that it is working on Jelly Bean updates for their smartphones. I expect the international version of the HTC One X, the HTC One XL and the HTC One S to be amongst the first high-end smartphones to be updated to Jelly Bean.
Samsung is definitely not the manufacturer you think of when debating quick Android updates. While the international version of the Galaxy S2 was updated in late March, some US variations of the model weren’t updated until months later. The Samsung Galaxy Note is another perfect example on Samsung’s unwillingness to release timely updates: the Note was just recently updated to Android 4.0, a couple of weeks after Google unveiled Android 4.1: Ice Cream Sandwich. When it comes to their tablets, however, Samsung is doing even worse.
Despite all this, there is still the possibility that the current king of the Android hill – namely the Samsung Galaxy S3 – will be updated to Jelly Bean considerably faster than the two previous Galaxy S models, given that Sammy is now offering only two variants of the smartphone: one internationally and one for all North American carriers. In addition, Samsung was surely included in Google’s PDK beta program – as the biggest Android device vendor in the world – so that should help too. I just don’t believe that Samsung will officially bring Android 4.1 Jelly Bean to the S3 before HTC updates its HTC One X. It’s just not how Samsung executives approach the problem.
Just so we’re clear on this, the Galaxy Nexus (the first smartphone to officially get Android 4.1 Jelly Bean) and the Nexus S (that was recently updated to Jelly Bean as well) don’t count as Samsung smartphones in this context, as their OS updates are managed exclusively by Google.
Unfortunately, as bad as Samsung are doing, there are other Android smartphone manufacturers such as Sony (who updated most of its ICS-capable smartphones during April) and LG who have shown no real interest whatsoever in delivering timely Android updates to their smartphones. But what strikes the most is the fact that Motorola (a company that was bought by Google) was incredibly slow in delivering the ICS update to their flagship smartphone, the Motorola RAZR / RAZR Maxx. The Android 4.0 update became available for DROID RAZR users in early June.
Although chances are that minor manufacturers will upgrade their devices faster than the big boys, the entire fragmentation problem within the Android ecosystem should be judged by how the major players play the game, as they account for the majority of Android devices. Or in other words, it shouldn’t surprise you if unimpressive smartphones such as the ZTE N880E get updated to Jelly Bean at least a couple of months before your uber fast Samsung Galaxy S3.
Note: It is obvious that tablet manufacturers were faster in providing the Android 4.0 update, but the main reason for their quickness is that Android 3.x Honeycomb – the first and last (thus far) tablet-only version of Android – sucked in a major way. On the other hand, Google’s Android 2.3 Gingerbread was, by all means, a success, and therefore smartphone manufacturers were not pressed to release the update as Android 2.3 Gingerbread smartphones were still flying off the shelf months after Ice Cream Sandwich was released. It remains to be seen if tablet manufacturers will be as quick to adopt Jelly Bean as they did ICS.
Conclusion: Get A Nexus Device
Fortunately, there is a way to make sure that your smartphone/tablet will get new Android versions almost as soon as they come out: buy a Nexus device. For a moment, just sit on the fact that the almost two year old Nexus S has already received its update to Jelly Bean, as will soon be the case for the Motorola Xoom, a device more than a year old. The Galaxy Nexus was officially updated to Jelly Bean in less than a couple of days. In contrast, bear in mind that up until a month ago, top-end devices such as the DROID RAZR, HTC Rezound, or the Samsung Galaxy Note were all still using Android 2.3 Gingerbread. If getting the latest Android version is of utmost importance to you, get a Google Nexus device.