I scream. You scream. Everyone is screaming for Ice Cream Sandwich

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer advice on rooting and upgrading an Android smartphone to Ice Cream Sandwich and explain why the Windows Phone ecosystem won't fragment.

The first Google Android phone sporting Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich has hit store shelves in the U.K. And now every other Android owner is wondering when they'll get to taste this yummy new OS.

Google released the source code for Ice Cream Sandwich earlier this week , which is good news for these Android enthusiasts. This means that device makers and other developers can get to work on porting the software to other devices. Will your Android samrtphone be one of them? If not can you still get Ice Cream Sandwich anyway? In this edition of Ask Maggie I answer that very question.

I also explain why Microsoft's new Windows Phone platform likely won't suffer the same fragmentation issues experienced in the Google Android world.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

How can I get Ice Cream Sandwich on my Android phone?


Dear Maggie,
I have a Motorola Droid 2. I really want the Ice Cream Sandwich software update. I know that Verizon Wireless and Motorola may not push the upgrade to me, so is there anything I can do to install it myself? I've heard that I will have to "root" my phone to do that. What is that? And are there other benefits or dangers to doing this?

Thanks,
Sam

Dear Sam,
You aren't the only person who is crossing his fingers and hoping that your Android smartphone gets the new Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich version of the software. While Motorola and other manufacturers have promised updates for newer devices, they haven't said much about older devices, such as your Droid 2.

And if history is any indication, even once they say an update is coming, it could still take months. That's what happened with the Gingerbread update for your Droid 2, as you will likely recall.

I also can't say for certain whether your Droid 2 will or will not get the update for Ice Cream Sandwich . My guess is that it probably won't. The reason is that there was a bit of a struggle getting Gingerbread on the Droid 2. And the second reason is that the device is old in terms of smartphone years. My guess is that Verizon and Motorola will focus on making upgrades available for the newer devices first. And they're probably hoping that customers like you with older devices will soon be eligible for an upgrade and will sign up for another contract with a newer smartphone.

That said, all hope is not lost for you. As you suggested in your question, you can "root" your phone and add the new software to your device yourself. I can't say for certain how well Ice Cream Sandwich will work on your phone. Remember that each new software upgrade generally uses more hardware resources and computing power. Also, the software could be buggy on an older model. But if you're not eligible for an upgrade for awhile or you're unwilling to be sucked into another contract, you can give it a shot.

Before I go any further, let's cover some basics. You will need to root your phone to install the new software. This is a process that will give you administrative access to your phone. Even though Android is an open source OS, when you buy it from the store, you still don't have full "root access." This means that you can't necessarily delete bloatware apps installed by your carrier or do whatever else you want with the phone. But once you get root access, you can customize the software however you like.

There are many reasons that people root their Android devices. But the main one is to have more freedom and control over what the phones can do. Here are what I consider to be the top three benefits to rooting an Android device:

  • Improve performance: You should be able to speed up the performance of your Android. There are applications available in the Android Market that will allow to overclock or push your device's hardware to the limit, so that you get the best performance.
  • Access to the latest Android OS: Once your phone is rooted, and you have full adminstrative control, you can install current and future operating systems by installing a custom ROM.
  • Access to more apps.: By rooting your device, you can download apps onto your phone that are not available through the Android market, opening up the possibilities for things you can do with your Android smartphone.
  • Wi-Fi tethering: Another major benefit of rooting your phone is that you'll be able to use it as a modem so that you can connect other devices to it via Wi-Fi and access the Internet. Carriers also allow you to tether your Android smartphones, but they charge additional fees to do this. Android phones that have been rooted can do this without those additional fees. Of course, if the carrier finds out you're doing this, you could still end up being charged for additional data service.

In order to root your phone, you need to download an application from the Internet onto a computer. (Typically, most programs require you use a Windows PC.) Some of the more popular apps for rooting are SuperOneClick, Z4Root and Universal AndRoot. The procedure for rooting an Android device varies from device to device. To find the procedure and the software that's best for your device, do a Google search for "rooting" and "Droid 2." You can also check out XDA Developers Forum or AndroidForums for some suggestions too.

I haven't personally rooted a Motorola Droid, so I can't vouch for any of the programs listed, but if you do a little bit of research you should find one that will work. After you've downloaded the software, it should only take a few clicks before your phone is rooted.

Keep in mind that there are some risks associated with rooting your Android device. For one, you may void your warranty. Still, even if you experience problems with your rooted device, if you a ROM that can restore your phone to its stock setting, you should still be fine.

The other potential problem is that you could "brick" your phone when you try to root it. Bricking a device means that you've, well, killed it. It's now a doorstop that can't be used again. But keep in mind that this is rare. If you follow the instructions, you should be fine.

Once your device is rooted, you can starting thinking about upgrading to Ice Cream Sandwich. It's still early days for Ice Cream Sandwich. Google just released the source code this week. So it will take some time for developers to come up with a ROM for it.

CyanogenMod, an open source community that develops customized, aftermarket firmware distribution for several Android devices, said this week that it's already working on a version of Ice Cream Sandwich . Its new version should be ready within the next two months. One issue for developers coming up with the Ice Cream Sandwich ROM is that the ICS version of Android OS is much larger than older versions, which means it needs more computing power.

CyanogenMod lists the Motorola Droid 2 as one of the devices it currently supports. But you can look around for others. There will likely be other ROMs available that will also offer Ice Cream Sandwich. CyanogenMod is just one.

The current version of CyanogenMod is based on Android 2.3 Gingerbread and referred to as CyanogenMod 7. The new Ice Cream Sandwich version will be called CyanogenMod 9.

Good luck in your pursuit of Ice Cream Sandwich. I hope this advice was helpful. And let me know how it goes.

Android OS fragmentation


Dear Maggie,
I just read your story on CNET about Google Android updates and I have a question. I am considering a smartphone but with the fragmentation of the Android market with different versions of the operating system, is it better to go with a new Windows Phone? Or do you expect similar issues?

Thanks,
JT

Dear JT,
There is some fragmentation in all software platforms. Even Apple, which controls the hardware and software of iOS, doesn't allow its newest versions of the iOS software to run on all of its older devices.

And the same thing is likely to happen to Windows Phone as it evolves. But the issues that Android faces today are a little bit different, because there is such a high degree of variation in the hardware of the devices using Android as well as the variation in the software used on these devices. This makes it more difficult to know exactly which devices will get new software updates when they becomes available.

Like Apple, Microsoft exerts more control over is operating system software, so there aren't too many variations on the products. This helps keep the software and even the hardware consistent.

So even though Microsoft doesn't make or design the hardware for its Windows Phone smartphones, it does issue manufacturers strict requirements for the hardware they can use. Microsoft also controls the look and the feel of the Windows Phone user interface. This means that individual device makers can't add their own software flavor to the hardware to differentiate their products from other Windows Phone products made by competing device makers.

By contrast, Android device manufacturers are able to customize the Android software and add layers of their own software "skin" on top of the Android OS. This means that HTC, Samsung, and Motorola can each add their own customized software on the devices to make the look and feel of the device unique to their brand.

While it's debatable whether these special software enhancements add value and functionality to the the Android devices, one thing is clear: They make it more difficult to push out updates quickly because additional testing needs to take place to ensure that the new Android update isn't screwed up by the manufacturer's software "skin."

Again, this problem doesn't exist for Windows Phone, since Microsoft doesn't allow for any software customization on top of the basic OS platform. Instead, Microsoft hopes that manufacturers will differentiate by offering additional services or building superior hardware.

Since Microsoft has strict control over the specifications used for devices and because it has ensured that hardware manufacturers don't add their own special sauce, Microsoft should be able to launch a new version of its software for all its devices all at once. This means there won't be any delays for certain devices nor will there be a question about which devices if any will be left out of the upgrade. The software will work on all devices with the same basic specifications.

This is not the case with Android, as I pointed out in my story earlier this week .

But there are downsides to having a phone that is based on a closed software platform, such as Windows Phone. For one, you won't be able to customize and tweak your phone to increase available memory, improve performance, or add apps you otherwise wouldn't have access to. The closed nature of the software also may mean that some features don't get added to phones as quickly. For example, Microsoft Windows Phone does not yet support 4G LTE, something the Android software has supported for months.

Again, I wouldn't say that Android fragmentation is a major deal breaker when considering a new device. But it could be annoying in the future as new versions of the software are released. I think it's much more important to pick a device that is easy to use, has the apps you want, and fits into your lifestyle.

Thanks for your question and good luck!

 

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