Ancient Phone Gets Ancient Android OS Update

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By this point, most Android fans have gotten used to the idea of OS fragmentation, but today brings what is perhaps the most blatant example of it I’ve seen to date.

The HTC Thunderbolt, a two-year-old phone that was significant for being the first device with LTE to hit the U.S. market on Verizon, is finally receiving an upgrade from Android 2.3 “Gingerbread.” Here’s the embarrassing part: The upgrade brings the phone to Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich,” which is still two versions behind the current one and more than 15 months old.

A certain vocal segment of Android fans usually jumps down my throat whenever I write about Android fragmentation, saying that no one cares, and that I must be on Apple’s payroll, since I’m obviously coming up with bogus reasons why Android isn’t The Anointed OS For One And All.

This never made sense to me. Hopefully we can put that sentiment to rest, given how well Android is doing, not to mention my own cheerleading for the platform. By this point, Android is far and away the number one smartphone OS in the world, with market share (70 percent) that dwarves iOS (22 percent). It also has more than 700,000 apps in Google Play, compared with 800,000 in Apple’s App Store. And if you’ve been paying attention, Android apps have taken a marked jump in quality over the past several months, as more and more developers pay attention to the platform instead of relegating it to second-tier status.

The Problem Continues
Our own Facebook poll on Android fragmentation proved not every Android owner cares all that much about OS updates, but that a significant minority does, and gets really frustrated when they can’t upgrade their phones.

Plus, Android fragmentation is still in the news. Many mid-tier app developers are clinging to iOS because of fragmentation concerns, while others question the need for more Android apps in the first place, or even cease Android development entirely.

A recent development brings good news, though. As our sister site ExtremeTech reported a few weeks ago, a new clause in the latest Android SDK’s terms of service (TOS) reads as follows:

3.4 You agree that you will not take any actions that may cause or result in the fragmentation of Android, including but not limited to distributing, participating in the creation of, or promoting in any way a software development kit derived from the SDK.

In other words, companies that fork the theoretically open-source Android OS are no longer allowed to do so. This doesn’t mean that phone manufacturers can’t overlay changes in the user interface or add their own apps, incidentally. It means that they can’t do so in a way that’s so embedded in the OS that you have to wait for the manufacturer to release its own versions of Android, rather than just installing the latest Google Android OS revision when it appears.

Google’s last attempt to stave off Android fragmentation was a total failure. The Google Android Update Alliance, announced at Google I/O 2011, was supposed to be a consortium of all of the big phone manufacturers agreeing to support handsets with the latest versions of Android, in a timely matter, for at least 18 months after its initial release. Everyone stood on stage, made the promise in front of a cheering audience, and then proceeded to completely ignore it in the months ahead. Whether anyone will actually pay attention to this latest TOS clause remains to be seen.

The Stakes Are High
What does this mean for end users? Android fragmentation is bad for several reasons. It makes QAing third-party apps and getting them to be reliable much more difficult than it is on other mobile OS platforms. It means all of the latest features Google adds to its OS are forever inaccessible to you if you have a phone that the manufacturer or wireless carrier decides isn’t important enough to update. And it’s self-reinforcing, because wireless carriers and manufacturers would rather hold the OS updates and instead push you into buying yet another phone before you would have otherwise.

All of the reasons you usually hear from carriers and manfacturers—that they need to qualify each handset for their network all over again as if were a brand new device, that they’re still evaluating demand, that developers are still working on it even though it’s already out on other phones—are all BS, since the iPhone doesn’t have any of these problems.

Sure, not every version of iOS runs on every iPhone ever made. But it’s much more uniform, and it’s only in the past few years where over two-year-old iPhones can no longer run every new feature the latest OS has at any given point. Windows Phone 8 and BlackBerry 10 abandon the past entirely, which is even worse than Android, but both of those platforms have almost become rounding errors in market share and needed to do something drastic to turn things around.

Personally, I have no particular qualms with HTC Sense 4, Samsung’s TouchWiz Nature UX, and the look and feel of Motorola, LG, and Pantech’s UI overlays for Android. I prefer some over others, and I certainly don’t like it when the UI additions slow down the handset’s responsiveness. But if overall performance is good on a given handset, UI layers are fine with me, and they let manufacturers distinguish their Android devices with more than just specs. But when they are so embedded in the OS that you can’t just update to the latest version whenever you want to—which is currently the case on all Android phones aside from unlocked Nexus 4s and Galaxy Nexuses—that’s where fragmentation rears its ugly head (kernel?).

Soon, we’ll begin to see if Google’s latest TOS changes pay off. Here’s hoping.

For more from Jamie, follow him on Twitter @jlendino.

By Jamie Lendino, PCMag


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  • http://www.facebook.com/tarunvir.bains Tarunvir Singh Bains

    OS Fragmentation is just an excuse made by non android owners. What Isn`t being recognized is the strong development community taking advantage of the open source nature of Android. I`m still using my Samsung Galaxy S Captivate and the last official release was only Gingerbread too. But I`ve been off those stock roms for ages now. I`m currently on Cyanogenmod 10 (Android 4.1) and as soon as a stable version of 10.1 is out (they`ve already put out a decent experimental build), I`ll upgrade. Should only be a couple weeks.