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Motorola exec blames slow Android updates on hardware

Motorola's Christy Wyatt says that hardware is a much more limiting factor in getting speedy Android updates to market than the software Motorola layers onto its Android devices.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read

Why does it take so long for Motorola to update its smartphones with the latest Android OS updates? Blame it on the hardware, said Christy Wyatt, vice president and general manager for Motorola Mobility's enterprise business unit.

Christy Wyatt, vice president and general manager for Motorola Mobility's enterprise business unit. Motorola

At a roundtable discussion with reporters this week in New York City, Wyatt explained that making sure a new release of Google's software works on every variation of a Motorola smartphone takes time, especially with devices launching in multiple countries.

Motorola is not the only Android manufacturer that has been slow introducing Android upgrades. Samsung, HTC, Sony, and LG have also been criticized. Experts speculated that one factor causing the delay was the additional software layered on top Android that is supposed to differentiate products from competitors. For example, HTC has Sense and Motorola has Motoblur.

But Wyatt said that this additional software is not the problem. Instead it's the variations in hardware for each market along with the additional software added by wireless operators that slow the process.

"I'd say it's the hardware that's the long pole in the tent," Wyatt said. "Dealing with the software is not the hard part. The Razr launched in more than 40 countries and each country had slightly different requirements in terms of banding. And there are also dozens of carriers we need to work with. It's a big machine to churn."

But the slow and erratic upgrade cycle for Android devices is a chief complaint among Android device owners. It's especially frustrating for consumers when competing operating systems are able to push out releases of new software to every customer at once. For example, when Apple came out with iOS 5, it was able to let customers know that anyone with an iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 was eligible for the upgrade. Once the software was released, people could upgrade their devices.

Microsoft also updated all its existing Windows Phone devices at the same time when Windows Phone 7.5, also known as Mango, was introduced in September.

But for Google Android users, knowing when or even if their smartphone will get an update is a guessing game. Android 4.0, otherwise known as Ice Cream Sandwich, was announced last spring at Google I/O. The first device to use the new software, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus came to market in October.

Meanwhile, Motorola has introduced new devices since the first Ice Cream Sandwich phone was launched, including the Razr and Razr Maxx that are using the older version of Android known as Gingerbread. And now four months later, Motorola is about to launch the Droid 4, which also uses Gingerbread instead of Ice Cream Sandwich. The Razr and Razr Maxx are also still waiting for Ice Cream Sandwich.

While other Android device makers, such as Sony (formerly Sony Ericsson) have promised Ice Cream Sandwich for all phones with certain specs launched in 2011, Motorola has been vague about which devices will get the upgrade and when consumers can expect those upgrades.

"It's not as easy for us to make a blanket statement because we have a lot more devices and sell them to a lot more carriers than some other manufacturers," said Wyatt.

Wyatt explained that Google doesn't share the new software code with its Android partners until the first pure Google device with the latest version of software is introduced. So the introduction of the Galaxy Nexus in October was really day one for Motorola in terms of testing out the new software, she said.

Wyatt also shed light on when the company might introduce devices that support near-field communications, or NFC. This short-range wireless technology allows people to make mobile payments using their smartphones. Google has included NFC in the Samsung Nexus 4G, Google's old Gingerbread flagship handset, and Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the flagship Ice Cream Sandwich device. And last year it introduced its Google Wallet application and service that turns an NFC-enabled cell phone into a virtual digital wallet. But so far NFC chips haven't shown up in any other Android devices.

Wyatt said one reason Motorola hasn't added NFC to devices yet is because it adds cost and bulk to the smartphones. And since there hasn't been a burning desire from customers for the mobile-payment functionality, the company has held off including it in its devices.

But part of the issue may also be that operators aren't yet sure they want NFC-enabled devices on their networks. For example, even though the Samsung Galaxy Nexus has an NFC chip built in, Verizon has disabled the functionality on the device. There are reports that an unlocked Galaxy Nexus on AT&T can use Google Wallet. The reason Verizon disabled the chip is that the carrier also wants a cut of the mobile-payment business. And Google Wallet doesn't really allow for that. Verizon and other wireless operators are working on their own digital wallet through a joint venture known as Isis.

Still, Wyatt said that Motorola will introduce NFC handsets in the "not too distant future."

As for those Ice Cream Sandwich updates on existing Motorola smartphones, consumers will just have to wait.