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Android updates embarrassing, but do users notice?

Android 4.0 seems to be taking ages to get out to devices. Developers still favor writing for iOS. It sounds terrible for Android, but there are reasons why it might actually have little impact on Android users.

It was big news this week that most Android phones haven't yet been upgraded to the latest Android operating system. Developers also seem to still prefer writing apps for Apple devices, despite Google's predictions. That's sure embarrassing for Google. But does it make that much of a difference to the Android user? I'll offer myself up as a reality check.

The statistics on the sorry situation come from Google itself. Only 7.1 percent of devices that have recently accessed Google Play are listed as using the latest Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich" version of Google's mobile operating system (anything from Android 4.0 to Android 4.0.4). Most are far behind, using Android 2 versions ranging from Android 2.0 through Android 2.3.7.

I prefer Android 2 to Android 4 myself, so I'm kind of pleased that one of my two main Android phones, the Galaxy S II Skyrocket with AT&T, is still on the older version. But it is also annoying. When's that phone going to get upgraded? What about other Android phones that I have?

Update roulette
I've amassed quite a collection of Android phones over the years. Some are review units I've been allowed to keep, some I picked up while attending the annual Google I/O developer event, and some I've purchased (my policy is that any phone I use regularly, I buy). Here's an inventory of units I have at hand and their status:

HTC Dream / Android 1.6: Actually, this is the Google I/O developer edition phone that was given out by Google itself at Google I/O 2009, with specs the same as the HTC Dream. My understanding from Google is that it will never be updated over-the-air beyond where it's at now. I believe that's also the case for those with branded HTC Dream phones.

Nexus One / Android 2.3.6: This is the original in the Google Nexus line, and I received it when attending the Nexus One launch event in January 2010.

HTC Evo 4G: / Android 2.3.3: I received this Sprint phone when I attended Google I/O 2010. It appears not to be on HTC's list for upgrading to Android 4.

Droid Charge / Android 2.3.6 : My first Verizon 4G LTE phone, which I purchased last June. It's not on Samsung's list of phones to be upgraded.

Droid Bionic / Android 2.3.4: A review unit that I'm about to send back to Motorola. I never did a review of the phone, primarily because it wasn't running the latest version of Android and I didn't feel I could do a decent review versus phones like the Galaxy Nexus or the iPhone 4S that do have the latest versions of their operating systems. The Droid Bionic isn't due to get Android 4 until the third quarter of this year.

Nexus S / Android 4.0.4: I purchased this phone with Sprint last year, though I no longer use it day-to-day nor have a Sprint account. It got the Android 4 update in April, four months after the software shipped on the Galaxy Nexus.

AT&T Galaxy S II Skyrocket / Android 2.3.6: One of the two Android phones that I use on a day-to-day basis, I purchased it only a few months ago. It's on the list to get upgraded, but there's no set date.

Galaxy Nexus / Android 4.0.4: The latest in the Nexus line, I purchased mine to use as one of my two main Android phones in January 2012. It's running the most up-to-date version of Android.

The sorry state of Android updates
After taking a look at that inventory, it's clear the state of Android updates is pretty pathetic. There's an excellent chance the Galaxy S III will arrive before my Galaxy S II gets updated to Android 4. The Droid Bionic is not likely to get Android 4 before Apple ships iOS 6 and perhaps an entirely new iPhone. My Nexus S -- a Google-branded phone -- took four months to get the latest version of Android, which was insane.

If I weren't so involved in technology writing, and thus constantly upgrading my phones, it's likely that I'd still have only my Droid Charge midway through a two-year contract and no hope of ever jumping from Android 2 to Android 4.

In contrast, consider that the iPhone 3G that I still have, my original iPhone bought in 2008, is running iOS 4. It'll never get upgraded past that, but it's also a four-year-old phone that kept up with the latest iOS releases until last year. That's much better than Android phones I have that are only a year or two old and seem likely to never jump beyond Android 2. My oldest Android phone, still one year younger than my iPhone 3G, will never leave Android 1.6 unless I try manually "rooting" an upgrade myself.

Meanwhile, the iPhone 4 that I swapped for an iPhone 4S is hanging in there with the current version of iOS 5, despite coming up on two years old. I fully expect it will be able to upgrade to iOS 6, when that comes out.

But does old matter?
Now for the reality check. I used the Nexus One, one of the oldest phones in the bunch listed above, on a trip back to the U.K. last month. Despite the phone's age, and despite its running only Android 2, it had the following features, which let me do the following things:

My Nexus One, still ticking along

  • E-mail app to send and receive e-mail
  • Browser to browse the Web
  • Twitter app to tweet
  • Facebook app to share on Facebook
  • Google+ app to share on Google+
  • Instagram app to share photos
  • Foursquare app to check in and get local information
  • Camera app to shoot pictures and video
  • Kindle app to read
  • Map app to find locations and GPS navigate to them
  • Clock to set an alarm
  • Calendar to check my schedule
  • SMS to send text messages
  • Wi-Fi hotspot to share my mobile Internet connection with my computer

What exactly was I missing by the operating system being so old? Nothing, really. The phone did just as much as my top-of-the-line Galaxy Nexus. It did just as much as my top-of-the-line iPhone 4S, for that matter. Sure, the pictures and video were lower-resolution, though not that remarkably noticeable. Aside from that, it wasn't like I was struggling to carry on my mobile life as normal.

That's the reality check that can go missing when looking at update figures. People are clearly still able to use their phones despite not having the latest version of Android. 

Is the killer app not an app?
The reality check also applies to another embarrassing figure, from Flurry Analytics, that shows  developers still seem to favor iOS to Android.

MG Siegler had an excellent post yesterday about this, rightly taking Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt to task over his prediction that by now developers would be favoring Android over iOS. That clearly doesn't seem to be the case. But while the start-up developers Siegler talks to each week may be saying iOS first, Android later if ever, most of those start-up developers, I'd say, are making applications few will ever use, and few will miss if they don't show up on Android.

I can't recall anyone I've talked to about phones who said they got one for a specific application. I'm sure there are some who do this, of course. But how common is it?

When I talk with ordinary people, the reasons they upgrade to a particular phone seem to be things like the low cost to upgrade, the size of the phone, the color of the phone, or just the overall ease of using the phone. That's where the iPhone seems to win; people like it because it's easy to use. The iPhone also wins as an upgrade because people I know want to have the latest one, period.

But people avoiding Android because they couldn't get an app? Instagram shows that's not a barrier to adoption. It took forever for Instagram to come to Android, yet Android grew despite this.

Personally, I find it odd that Android continues to grow when I still find the iPhone's iOS to be a more pleasant operating system. The only thing that keeps me from using my iPhone 4S even more is the lack of a 4G LTE connection and the built-in Google Maps navigation offered on the iPhone. But that's me. Others are different, and others clearly do use Android despite all the supposed "wrongs" with it. There are no wrong phones, if you're happy with what you use.

One of my favorite reality check moments is when I go to some school event and look at what all the other parents are carrying as phones, while we wait for an assembly to begin. Two weeks ago, I counted three iPhones and three Android phones in my row. Developers be damned; Android upgrade delays be damned; pundits be damned. Half that row was using Android.

Controlled fragmentation
That doesn't excuse Google or its carrier and handset partners for the poor performance in getting Android updates out. When so many relatively new Android phones are behind in being updated, Google looks bad, and it should look bad, especially a year after an initiative that was supposed to make things better. But actual Android users might not care. As long as their phones keep doing what they expect their phones to do, Android 2 or Android 4, they carry on.

As for Apple, the rumors of the new iPhone that's larger than the current one may allow Apple to have that killer app that's not an app: more variety in form factor. You want a bigger iPhone? Maybe you can have it. Want a smaller one? Stay with the iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S. Need a lower-cost phone? There's the iPhone 3GS.

For all the "fragmentation" worries raised about Android, the advantage has been that the fragmentation allowed a thousand Android devices to bloom (and a handful of those to flower into big hits). Think of Apple's rumored devices as a study in controlled fragmentation. More variety, more choice, yet a consistent experience across them all. That might be the real killer app.