Where’s that OS update for my Android?

I’ve talked with many Android users and developers and the question that comes up the most is: why can’t the cell provider or hardware manufacturer provide an OS update for my phone? For example, I doubt that my primary developer phone, a Motorola Atrix, is ever going to see an OS update beyond Android 2.3.6. My idea is reinforced by the fact that its much touted successor, the Atrix 2, only supports v2.3.7 and, as of this writing, Android’s latest release is at 4.0.x.

Why update at all? In my case, there are an increasing number of software requirements that simply can’t be met without significant work-arounds with the older OS versions, for example building dynamic UIs. That’ not to say that upgrading, in itself, doesn’t also involve additional coding to support certain levels of backward compatibility. More on that in a minute. On that note, I’ve also blogged before on the versions of the Android OS being used by the majority of phone users.

In the case of the consumer, you may simply want a new feature like a better camera, or more battery life. Or, perhaps your two year cell plan is expiring and your phone battery isn’t lasting as long, or the phone seems to be getting slower and you would like something new.

The twist. Okay, back to the OS updates. First of all, as customers roll off their two year contract an educated guess is that they’ll want to buy the latest generation phone rather than hang onto their old one which isn’t upgradeable. So many things change in two years that my old phones look ancient, and sometimes downright clunky, compared to the latest and greatest. You may have experienced similar thoughts. This creates huge demand for the “new”. It’s not much different than cars in a way.

Here’s what makes things interesting. It’s a fact that Android makes these updates publicly available. However, the carrier who sold you your phone, and the hardware manufacturer that built it most likely made changes to the operating system and phone firmware that essentially creates a specialized branch of code. So, the Android official update may not necessarily work on your phone. In essence, you’re stuck because the source for these customized OS’s isn’t open.

Reality is it costs money to maintain these unique Android code branches through support resources and software developers to make and test bug fixes. And, it costs even more money to maintain backwards compatibility for older versions of phone firmware or software in parallel with support for all new subsequent releases. If you aren’t familiar with firmware, it provides the lowest level of control on your phone and it’s provided by the phone manufacturer not Android. When new releases of software or firmware happen, you have to make sure you don’t break anything. I have a hunch that it also takes more time for hardware manufacturers to catch up on supporting new Android features than it does for Android to add features. Making hardware changes takes time via a manufacturing process.

This is where phones are different than cars. I’m not aware of a huge aftermarket for upgrading the OS on older phones. Where, in comparison, car parts and service is a big business. So my analogy isn’t 100% perfect.

I also suspect that neither the cell providers, nor the hardware manufacturers, want to be in the software business. That certainly does not appear to be their core competency. After all, the people behind Android are the experts who continue to innovate at lightning speed.

So, putting all of these concepts together makes me a realist, I suppose. I think the odds show little incentive for the stakeholders of my Atrix to bequeath an Android OS update.

Summary. At a national level, adoption of the newer OS’s happens in longer cycles because of cell contracts which affect how often consumers can update. Supporting older phones costs money. And since us consumers push the latest and greatest, the carriers and phone manufacturers respond by being wholly focused on getting new technology into our hands.

On one hand, I cringe at the fact of giving up a decently working phone that I’m very familiar with and possibly relegating it to the back of a rarely used desk drawer. But, on the other hand, what I’ll gain from a pure consumer point-of-view, seems to significantly outweigh that simple fact. The hardware benefits of a new phone include: a much better screen and camera, better battery life management, more powerful CPU and onboard memory. From a software perspective I get support for the latest version of Android which includes the new user interface capabilities along with other behind-the-scenes improvements.

[Edited 6/11/12: Database crashed. Restored Blog Post.]