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Android users outraged over Motorola's broken promise

Company concedes some customers got "a raw deal" in decision not to upgrade 2011 flagship devices to Ice Cream Sandwich.

Motorola CEO Dennis Woodside at the company's event earlier today.
Motorola CEO Dennis Woodside is under fire for an abandoned pledge to update three 2011 phones to Ice Cream Sandwich.
Sarah Tew/CNET

Doran Else bought his Photon 4G last October, lured by the fast dual-core processor and by the close relationship between Motorola and its new owner, Google. Motorola had recently joined the Android Upgrade Alliance, promising to release operating system updates to all its phones for 18 months following their release.

But for Else and thousands of others, those operating system updates turned out to be a mirage. Last Friday, buried in a Motorola forum, the company quietly abandoned its update pledge, killing off plans to ever update the Photon 4G. The Electrify, a re-branded Photon available on the US Cellular network, and the Atrix 4G, a flagship phone that debuted on AT&T in the United States, got the axe as well.

"Just seems they were happy to join the alliance when it helped them sell handsets," Else said in an e-mail. "Now that it's time to do the work, they're all dropping devices. This latest announcement from Moto is just ridiculous."

The result is that Else and thousands of people in the middle of two-year carrier contracts will have to use Android 2.3, known as Gingerbread, for the foreseeable future. Motorola had promised owners of the Photon, Electrify, and Atrix an upgrade to to Android 4.0, known as Ice Cream Sandwich, which would bring a host of new features and security updates. Instead they are stuck on Gingerbread, an operating system that was already a year old when Else bought his phone.

There was no word on why the company had twice said upgrades were coming -- first in the third quarter of this year, then the fourth quarter -- or why it had bothered joining the Android Upgrade Alliance, if it couldn't meet its requirements.

The Photon 4G is among the phones Motorola won't upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich.
The Photon 4G is among the phones Motorola won't upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich. Josh Miller/CNET

Same old song
Every few months, it seems, we hear a new version of an old story: the maker of an expensive smartphone announces it won't be upgraded to the latest version of Android, and consumers cry foul.

But this one is different. First, Motorola told customers they would upgrade the phones for 18 months after they came out, a statement that drove sales of the devices. Second, Google owns both Android and Motorola, making it all the more puzzling why the business units didn't work together to make an upgrade happen.

Finally, there are signs that for some Android devotees, Motorola's abandonment of its year-old phones is the last straw.

We asked Motorola smartphone owners how they were feeling about the company -- and Android -- these days. Jacob Depenbusch, a Photon owner, offered a typical account. He researched a variety of Android phones and settled on the Photon after learning it was on the upgrade path.

"My family and myself all bought the Photon because it met the specifications of being upgraded to ICS," Depenbusch said. "Had they not promised an update, the phone would've been out of the question. And then they reneged on the promise. They benefited financially from lying to us, and these phones certainly aren't cheap. This is an appalling business practice."

Several owners said they had filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau over their treatment by Motorola. Others said they had purchased a Motorola for the last time. That's despite the fact that Motorola is offering a $100 credit to anyone willing to purchase a new phone from the company.

"The fact they are offering $100 to swap to another Motorola phone is laughable," said Danny Brewer, who owns an Atrix. "I will not be touching it or another Motorola phone with a barge pole. I don't want a new phone -- I want my current phone, that I have to keep for another year, as that's how long my contract is for.

"There are very few companies that I have felt I needed to boycott," he added. "But Motorola has just earned that honor."

The really unfortunate part of this? Most of the people who we interviewed love their phones. They find them fast, reliable, and fun to play with. They want to keep using them well into the future. They'd just like to do it on Ice Cream Sandwich -- an operating system that was released to manufacturers a year ago.

But does it matter?
In June, writing about the sorry state of Android updates, CNET contributor Danny Sullivan asked whether users actually cared. Noting that Android's market share continued to expand despite the spotty track record with updates, he noted that Gingerbread remained a perfectly useable operating system.

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

But you don't have to be a power user to crave regular updates to your phone's operating system. Often, updates do more than add new bells and whistles -- they fix security exploits, improve battery life management, and make phones more useable in general.

Ice Cream Sandwich, meanwhile, wasn't just a superficial update to Android; it revamped the user experience and added a lot of key features: visual voice mail, app folders, resizeable widgets, and an improved camera app, as well as improved designs for its contact and e-mail apps.

Moreover, by signaling a company's willingness to keep investing in products for as long as their customers are under contract, they foster loyalty to a brand. (Andrew Cunningham, writing at Ars Technica, highlights another benefit -- the more people are using the same operating system, the easier the platform is for developers to build on. That benefits everyone who uses it.)
Motorola phone owners are tweeting their outrage using the #motofail tag.
Motorola phone owners are tweeting their outrage using the #motofail tag. Screenshot by Casey Newton/CNET
Motorola responds
Motorola, for its part, acknowledged that it was leaving some of its most loyal customers hanging.

"I think some of them have gotten a raw deal," said Punit Soni, who runs software product management for Motorola Mobility. "We understand strongly and apologize for it."

Punit Soni, who runs software product management for Motorola Mobility.
Punit Soni, who runs software product management for Motorola Mobility.
Soni is taking the brunt of consumer frustration despite just joining Motorola from Google a month ago.

The decision to deny some phones an update came down to stretched resources, Soni said. Ultimately, Motorola chose to focus on speedy, consistent updates to a limited number of older phones and all of its new phones, rather than its entire product lineup, which would have led to long, unpredictable upgrade cycles and headaches for the leaner staff.

"We couldn't do both," Soni said. "If we went down that road (of upgrading every device), we couldn't meet our commitment to be future-facing."

Before making the call Motorola considered every device, taking into account specifications such as processor speed and memory, the user base, and the work required to enable the upgrade, Soni said. He added that he doesn't believe they will add any other phones to the list of devices not getting an upgrade to the operating system.

"If we didn't make the hard call here, we would be in trouble going forward," he said.

The company, under CEO Dennis Woodside, has decided to narrow its focus on fewer devices so it can offer quick upgrades to the latest version of Android. That includes its currently announced lineup of upcoming Droid Razr smartphones, which will all be getting Android 4.1, or Jelly Bean, before the end of the year. The company has worked with its suppliers and carriers to ensure that future upgrades would go through more smoothly.

Motorola aspires to be known for fulfilling its commitments. Soni admitted that the company wasn't quite there yet. But he believes the decision to cut off some upgrades would position the company to meet its future commitments.

Soni said he knew Motorola would alienate some of its more loyal customers with the decision. He added the company would provide more details on its rebate program to help customers upgrade to a device capable of getting the latest version of Android.

But that's cold comfort to thousands of customers who took Motorola at their word. A number of them have set up a Web site,, begging the company to reconsider -- or to at least unlock the phones' boot loaders, which would enable power users to load a custom operating system. A separate site, UpdateMyMoto, is leading a social media campaign. (On Twitter, users are broadcasting their disappointment with the company using the #MotoFail hashtag.

Soni said Motorola supports unlockable bootloaders -- but that in some instances, the company is facing concerns from the carriers. When those concerns are assuaged, it will gladly provide the bootloaders to individuals, he said.

"As a matter of principle, we are totally for it," Soni said.

Still, the outrage comes at a difficult time for Motorola, said Tony Costa, an analyst at Forrester.

"Motorola can't at this point afford to alienate the customers who have stuck by them," he said. "They're going to need those customers to move forward and rebuild their business."

Meanwhile, some users are planning to bypass Android altogether. Doran Else, the buyer of that Photon in Des Moines, said that when his contract is up he's buying his family iPhones and Windows Phones.

"Android devices are abandoned far too quickly for me to invest any further in them," he said.