Dear Android: This is your last chance

Fragmentation, buggy upgrades, and a seeming lack of interest (or at least tech support) from Google have Molly Wood ready to dump Android. But the iPhone 4S is just weak enough to leave a tiny opening to keep her in Android's camp.

Molly Wood Former Executive Editor
Molly Wood was an executive editor at CNET, author of the Molly Rants blog, and host of the tech show, Always On. When she's not enraging fanboys of all stripes, she can be found offering tech opinions on CBS and elsewhere, and offering opinions on everything else to anyone who will listen.
Molly Wood
6 min read

The morning of October 4, I had my credit card in hand, ready to buy an iPhone 5 and wave good-bye to Android forever.

Sadly, the iPhone 4S isn't quite what I'd hoped for: it's too expensive for the high-capacity models I'd prefer, I want a bigger screen, there's no 4G, and I'd hoped for integrated turn-by-turn directions. The 4S has left an opening for Android to reassert itself and win my continued loyalty...but it's a tiny opening, indeed. This is Android's last chance, and here's why.

Fragmentation (still)
I've written about this problem before, and it's still a problem. Sure, it's a problem Google has pledged to address, by forming the Android Update Alliance back in May. Google announced it would work with manufacturers and carriers to deliver timelier updates on a standardized schedule, and to keep updating every device for at least 18 months after its creation. That seemed like good news, and a pretty straightforward acknowledgement that fragmentation was a serious problem, and one that was driving consumers batty.

As of August, progress was spotty, and abysmal at T-Mobile and Verizon, where AndroidAndMe found that only a fraction of phones with those carriers were running the latest version of Android.

AndroidAndMe.com breaks it down
AndroidAndMe.com breaks it down http://androidandme.com

Just this month, Gingerbread adoption finally showed a measurable uptick (though primarily due to sales of new devices, one assumes), while Froyo penetration dropped below 50 percent for the first time. That's a slow burn.

Meanwhile, Google's Eric Schmidt is now promising that Ice Cream Sandwich would bring unity to hardware and software specs and make everything all timely and perfect.

But developers have heard that before: Honeycomb, the tablet-specific version of Android, was also supposed to come with strict hardware and software implementation requirements, but many developers say it only worsened fragmentation issues (not to mention the tablets running it were a dud, sales-wise). Now, Honeycomb is being killed off to make room for ICS. That's a wise after-the-fact decision, but woe be the foolish developer who spent a lot of time and money writing apps for Honeycomb back when it was the fragmentation-killer du jour.

What's the end result of fragmentation for you and me? First, the constant game of waiting for updates--some of your friends have Gingerbread, you're still on Froyo, you're complaining about that and then another friend comes up behind you and says they haven't even gotten Froyo. You never know when updates are coming, other than rumors on blogs and forums, and there never seems to be a reason for the delay. That's just a terrible customer experience--but it's not the worst problem.

Fragmentation also leads to lukewarm developer support, which leaves us frustratingly behind the apps race compared to the iTunes App Store. And it means delays on hotly desired apps, like the Netflix app, which the company said was nearly impossible to develop considering the lack of a common DRM platform across devices. Say what you will about DRM, Netflix can't stream movies without it--and that meant no app at all until only recently. The app finally appeared in May, and only worked on five devices, with a slow rollout to others happening willy-nilly over the last few months.

And that slow rollout and spotty implementation, says Symantec, opened the door to the fake Netflix Trojan that this week masqueraded as the actual Netflix app and then stole users' personal information.

People were so happy to see any Netflix app, they cheerfully downloaded a Trojan.
People were so happy to see any Netflix app, they cheerfully downloaded a Trojan. Symantec

To be honest, fragmentation alone is plenty reason to abandon the platform--I'm not buying a new phone every year just to keep up, and I'm tired of the guessing game and bullet lists about what's coming when and to whom, and what apps support what version of the OS, down to the second decimal place. If only that were the end of the tale, though.

Lack of support
Smartphones are complicated devices, running complicated software. Android is further complicated by, as I mentioned, fragmentation, and also the introduction of wild-card apps from multiple sources. Don't get me wrong--I prefer and appreciate the open(ish) nature of Android and the ability to get lots of kinds of apps. But when something goes wrong with my phone, I want someone to call, and Verizon (or AT&T, or T-Mobile, or Sprint) isn't in the business or habit of supporting software. The manufacturers seem well out of their depth, in terms of support. And Google is no help at all.

For example, Droid X users like myself waited months for a Gingerbread update that came more than a year after the phone's release. Sadly, when it landed in June 2011, it crippled many phones, including mine. The list of problems introduced by the update is unbelievable, ranging from the navigation app confusing east and west to spontaneous restarts to weakened or disappearing 3G signals to Bluetooth failing completely to random Wi-Fi disconnections, and on and on.

A partial (seriously) list of problems introduced by Gingerbread on the Droid X.
A partial (seriously) list of problems introduced by Gingerbread on the Droid X. Motorola Owners' Forum

Forum threads were filled with complaints. Motorola promised it was looking into the issue, and an Android fix finally arrived in August, fully two months later. In the meantime, Verizon didn't say a word, officially (although it did helpfully factory reset my phone as a possible "fix" that simply erased every app and setting and left me with a clean Gingerbread install that was only marginally less buggy than the first), and neither did Google.

Now, I don't necessarily expect Google to wade into every Android-related fray on behalf of their manufacturing partners. But its standards-setting clearly isn't working, if updates this buggy are going out to customers, and if it can't force its partners to deal with problems more quickly, it should at least communicate with the public about whether Android is a trustworthy product on any platform.

This is a question of brand equity and customer experience: Google needs to get control of it on more than just pure-Android Nexus phones. The answer to every Android-related problem on any phone cannot be an army of disdainful Reddit readers telling everyday consumers that all they have to do is root their phones, install Cyanogen Mod, and live happily ever after.

Android is always late
To live with Android is to learn to wait. Like an overdue baby making its expectant mother insane with each passing day, Android came into this world more than a year after it was expected to launch, and it's been running late ever since. Look:

In sum, life with Android has been an uncertain, buggy, frustrating mess.

There are times when I truly doubt Google's commitment to the whole enterprise, despite its burgeoning market share. The proposed Motorola Mobility acquisition throws even more questions into the mix: will other hardware partners abandon Android in favor of a more trustworthy bedfellow? If so, I'm unquestionably out: Motorola hardware fails fast and hard, although it's not quite as awful as the crapware-laden Samsung Fascinate Verizon foisted on me--the only phone I did root, just to escape having Bing as my default search.

Perhaps Ice Cream Sandwich will be all that we hope: the peacemaker, the great uniter, the forger of a New Deal between handset makers and Google. The Galaxy Nexus could prove to be the perfect phone, with a fully integrated suite of amazing Google services working in harmony and delivering on the promise that Google made back in 2007. But let's be clear: it will have to be exactly that.

As I said, the iPhone 4S gave Android an unexpected break: before that announcement, fully 42 percent were prepared to switch to an iPhone. Those numbers may be lower in the wake of the lack of 4G, the still-small screen, and the fact that Vlingo does a lot of what Siri promises. But the break is likely to be short unless Google can put some serious muscle behind bringing the platform up to prime time. Me, personally, I'm still keeping the credit card ready for the iPhone 5, just in case.