ICS Giving Nexus One the Cold Shoulder

I was reading an article on Slashdot, along with a corresponding article on Tech Crunch, noting that as Ice Cream Sandwich (the latest and greatest release of Android) is being rolled out, many devices including Google’s Nexus One, will not be getting the new OS and will not, in general, be eligible for future OS updates. According to the Tech Crunch article:

We’re all ready to get a hefty helping of Ice Cream Sandwich, but some may wait longer than others. HTC is still firmly on the fence about details, while Motorola has promised Android 4.0 to the Droid RAZR in the first half of 2012.

Meanwhile, Nexus handset owners will be on a shorter waiting list, with the exception of the Nexus One. Unfortunately for owners of the original Google phone, Google has confirmed that the Nexus One is just “too old” for the new software. Google’s Product Management Director of Android Hugo Barra has confirmed that the Nexus S, on the other hand, will get a taste of Ice Cream Sandwich “within weeks.”

The Telegraph reports that Google hopes to get Android 4.0 out to the Nexus S just after the release of the Galaxy Nexus, an NFC-capable phone recently announced in Hong Kong. Then again, Nexus S owners can get an almost-complete version of Android 4.0 over at the XDA-Developer forums. Brave Nexus One owners can also find a flashable ROM of an Ice Cream Sandwich build in this thread.

This leads to an interesting consequence of the difference in philosophy between Google (primarily a software company) and Apple (primarily a hardware company). While Apple is able to maintain excellent compatibility between various editions of the iPhone, and various editions of iOS are supported on seemingly ancient Apple hardware, the fact that Android is allowed to run on so many different phones can present end users with the unfortunate discovery that their phone is no longer supported or eligible for updates. Obviously Google’s approach with Android has led to a rapidly increasing market share because their OS is on so many devices, but it still strikes me as an approach that has the potential to infuriate some users. Michael Degusta, in an article on his blog The Understatement, breaks this down:

The announcement that Nexus One users won’t be getting upgraded to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich led some to justifiably question Google’s support of their devices. I look at it a little differently: Nexus One owners are lucky. I’ve been researching the history of OS updates on Android phones and Nexus One users have fared much, much better than most Android buyers. I went back and found every Android phone shipped in the United States1 up through the middle of last year. I then tracked down every update that was released for each device – be it a major OS upgrade or a minor support patch – as well as prices and release & discontinuation dates. I compared these dates & versions to the currently shipping version of Android at the time.

He further breaks this down via an interesting chart:

This is bad for a lot of reasons, as noted by Degusta:

Consumers Get Screwed

Ever since the iPhone turned every smartphone into a blank slate, the value of a phone is largely derived from the software it can run and how well the phone can run it. When you’re making a 2 year commitment to a device, it’d be nice to have some way to tell if the software was going to be remotely current in a year or, heck, even a month. Turns out that’s nearly impossible – here are two examples: The Samsung Behold II on T-Mobile was the most expensive Android phone ever and Samsung promoted that it would get a major update to Eclair at least. But at launch the phone was already two major versions behind — and then Samsung decided not to do the update after all, and it fell three major OS versions behind. Every one ever sold is still under contract today. The Motorola Devour on Verizon launched with a Megan Fox Super Bowl ad, while reviews said it was “built to last and it delivers on features.” As it turned out, the Devour shipped with an OS that was already outdated. Before the next Super Bowl came around, it was three major versions behind. Every one ever sold is still under contract until sometime next year.

Developers Are Constrained

Besides the obvious platform fragmentation problems, consider this comparison: iOS developers, like Instapaper’s Marco Arment, waited patiently until just this month to raise their apps’ minimum requirement to the 11 month old iOS 4.2.1. They can do so knowing that it’s been well over 3 years since anyone bought an iPhone that couldn’t run that OS. If developers apply that same standard to Android, it will be at least 2015 before they can start requiring 2010’s Gingerbread OS. That’s because every US carrier is still selling – even just now introducing2 – smartphones that will almost certainly never run Gingerbread and beyond. Further, those are phones still selling for actual upfront money – I’m not even counting the generally even more outdated & presumably much more popular free phones. It seems this is one area the Android/Windows comparison holds up: most app developers will end up targeting an ancient version of the OS in order to maximize market reach.

Security Risks Loom

In the chart, the dashed line in the middle of each bar indicates how long that phone was getting any kind of support updates – not just major OS upgrades. The significant majority of models have received very limited support after sales were discontinued. If a security or privacy problem popped up in old versions of Android or its associated apps (i.e. the browser), it’s hard to imagine that all of these no-longer-supported phones would be updated. This is only less likely as the number of phones that manufacturers would have to go back and deal with increases: Motorola, Samsung, and HTC all have at least 20 models each in the field already, each with a range of carriers that seemingly have to be dealt with individually.

So it will be interesting to see how much (or how little) backlash Google sees as backwards compatibility of Ice Cream Sandwich and future Android versions continues to lag behind Apple’s, with their walled garden of tightly-controlled hardware.

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One Response to “ICS Giving Nexus One the Cold Shoulder”

  1. goodman

    This basically boils down to the biggest issue facing Android and developers: fragmentation. That’s kind of an overloaded word these days, but it’s true in almost every aspect. Hardware is fragmented, the OS is fragmented, etc. It’s a huge issue. Fortunately Google eases the burden by providing some APIs to help support so many devices, but it still costs developers a lot of time to try and support a majority of the Android Market.

    I don’t really think the chart comparing iOS to Android updates is true. For example, the iPhone 3G can’t get iOS 5. iPhone 1 couldn’t get iOS 4. And good luck trying to get an iOS1 or iOS2 app in the App Store these days. You basically get OS upgrade support for 2 iPhone generations, then you have to buy a new one. The fragmentation is nowhere near as bad as Android, but that chart is still a bit deceiving (and I think plainly wrong).

    Google knows this issue very well. Just watch the Google I/O 2011 keynote: http://www.google.com/events/io/2011/sessions/android-momentum-mobile-and-more-at-google-i-o.html. They spend a great deal of time trying to down-play the fragmentation issue. The Angry Birds demo is a crazy attempt to show that everything is all good in the world. Google has recently been trying to push members of the Open Handset Alliance to offer OS upgrades to their users for 2 years and they have been successful for some manufacturers.

    Is it surprising that ICS won’t be offered on old handsets? Not really. Mobile hardware is growing very quickly and you aren’t going to make any progress in this business supporting underpowered devices. It also doesn’t help that even the “cutting edge” Galaxy Nexus is using a GPU that is from 2007. Will that GPU be able to support Android 5? Who knows.

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