Jelly Bean and Google’s Uphill Battle Against Itself

Guest blogger Elliot Guest writes:

As has already been discussed elsewhere, adoption rates for Ice Cream Sandwich don’t appear to have been particularly stellar, as demonstrated by the helpful image generated by Google below.

Jelly Bean and Google's Uphill Battle Against Itself


Just to sum up briefly, the numbers collected for this pie chart span from a 14-day period, culminating on June 1st, 2012, so in that respect the numbers aren’t new. And though adoption of ICS near doubled in the past month, a number of just 7.1% in the company’s most up-to-date mobile operating system (considering the source code was released November 14th, 2011, roughly seven months ago) isn’t mind blowing.

I’d like to talk about Google’s problem with adoption rates, what the future holds, and what it needs to be doing to solve it.

A part of the problem of low adoption is the fact that the Gingerbread OS release had been around for so very long, having been freely available since December 6th, 2010, and the only other Android release between ICS and that time was the tablet-centric Honeycomb (with adoption levels also less than admirable; both 3.1. and 3.2 result in a mere 2.7% take of the Android pie chart above), giving plenty of time for manufacturers to pump out devices with 2.3. Not only that, but there are still manufacturers releasing phones with Gingerbread even after 4.0 was released (the Droid Razr MAXX comes to mind, with the update to 4.0 rumored for 27th June), meaning that it isn’t just the iPhone or even Windows Phone 7 that Android is competing with in the turbulent waters of the smartphone industry; it’s also the (what we might term as) ‘obsolete’ versions of its own OS.

If Jelly Bean is released late this summer or early autumn as it is rumored to be, then the problem will only be compounded further as the latecomers to Ice Cream Sandwich will be once again behind as they’ll be forced to begin reacting to yet another new operating system.

Perhaps it’s an issue of having too many devices released at once (a problem that HTC encountered and has attempted to solve in the release of the One series — a brand that bizarrely has been formed from a collection of three phones, but never mind that). Not only do some manufacturers have to bake the new OS for the many devices that they have released just a short period before the update, but the progress is slowed down further by changes that have to be made to the software if the phones are branded by carriers or networks in order for them to be set to specific standards.

This was a problem that I encountered since I own an HTC Sensation that is technically branded by O2, meaning I had to wait a further two months after the 4.0.3 software update had been released by HTC, in order for it to be okay by the network. Even though it is a problem that I fully understand, and further I would encourage the networks to run bug fixes and ensure it will actually work and not brick my device, I still despise the sheer time it took in order for me to hold an up-to-date phone in my hand (despite the fact that, by the time I’d gotten 4.0.3, 4.0.4 had been released to the various Nexus (Nexi?) devices in existence).

Jelly Bean and Google's Uphill Battle Against Itself

This in and of itself is indicative of part of the problem. Google has so far (since ICS’s wide release has further updated it three times from the original 4.0.1 release up to 4.0.4). The majority of these updates have been minor, addressing bugs and fixing little functionality issues — like how the screen rotates — and improving camera performance. This is excellent, and it’s great to see Google taking an active interest in the development of the OS.

However, the model through which it is distributed does not lend itself well to having small incremental updates. If Google had released a single phone on its own (such as the Nexus), like Apple with its single iPhone, rather than allow the OS to be free to adapt to any hardware deemed appropriate by manufacturers and carriers, then it would be perfectly sustainable to release small incremental updates.

As it is, I’ve received the update to 4.0.3 (as I mentioned above), but there is pretty much no chance I’ll receive one to 4.0.4, let alone 4.1/5.0 (Jelly Bean), partially because, as I’ve already explained, manufacturers have released a lot of devices in the last year. If it’s taken nearly five months just to get my HTC Sensation up to scratch on 4.0.3, HTC will now be dedicating its time to the other devices in its portfolio and I certainly don’t blame the company. If it stopped and started re-baking the update to 4.0.4 for the Sensation, it’d never get to any of its other devices. As it is, there are still HTC phones that aren’t on ICS, and likely won’t be for some time. And that’s just thinking of HTC, which has been very fast and transparent on its update plans.

However, as I said above, I likely won’t ever see another update to my phone — one that I’ve owned for a single year. In that case, it’s been one year, and it’s out of date, permanently, by all official means. I could root and install unofficial ROMs, but in doing so my warranty will be voided, and being new to the rooting scene, I’ll probably have at least one mishap while unlocking the bootloader. My device (should I choose to keep it) will then become a number in the faction of Ice Cream Sandwich, but when Jelly Bean comes out, the only thing my device will accomplish will be to hold back the numbers for the newest OS. It also means that I’m stuck with any bugs my device has now.

Having an incremental update cycle only benefits someone who owns a Nexus device — as it remains, the only device with access to reliably get updated quickly with a ‘stock’ version of the OS.

To summarize my point in a more succinct fashion, Google’s Android appears in some ways to be self-defeating. It’s a factor of the problem of being so open source. It is an issue of freedom with a free piece of software in the hands of companies that need to make them distinct and recognizable in order to sell.

A way to solve this? Prevent manufacturers from making so many changes to the OS in the first place, as keeping it stock will allow for faster and smoother updates. Doing so, however, will infringe on what manufacturers and techies alike will claim is the very meaning of open source: the freedom to do with the software what each freely chooses. Another solution would be to limit the update cycle of Android as a whole. Incremental updates appear to be only having the effect of slowing down the overall cycle, and demeaning any updates that do get through. If there were literally a single release a year (without incremental updates), it would give manufacturers a greater response time, and give the pie charts that Google produces more impact. This would prevent bug fixes and functionality updates, however, so the bonuses of this approach are also limited. Perhaps being open source is the very thing holding the OS back, and its accessible nature preventing it from truly flourishing.

I’m going to be watching carefully what Google does over the coming year, as I think the strategy that it takes with its mobile OS will define what the company means to consumers in the long run. If it can take a set of responsible actions to help encourage easy upgradability, everything will be roses. If not, there’s plenty of competition just waiting to snatch whatever market share is going. It might be that Jelly Bean is a tablet-focused update in an effort to bring Google’s low tablet penetration against the big hitter, Apple’s iPad, and the upcoming Surface with Windows 8. In that scenario, there is an opportunity for these numbers to balance out more equally in favor of ICS, thus justifying its existence (in terms of numbers and pie charts, at least).

It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. Ice Cream Sandwich was a great update for me when I got it. It fixed the screenshot bug that I was having (every time I hit the home button it would take a screenshot — very infuriating) and my battery life has surprisingly doubled. The system is up-to-date, much more responsive, and generally a little prettier thanks to the stylistic guidelines that Matias Duarte implemented into Ice Cream Sandwich.

It’s really great, as long as you have the means to get hold of it. I hope everyone will.

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