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On Call: Who's responsible for Android?

Android users have no clear recourse when they're experiencing problems with the OS. And no one is taking real responsibility when problems occur after an update.

Earlier this month, my colleague Maggie Reardon answered a question about buggy Android updates for her weekly column. After upgrading to Eclair (OS 2.1) on the HTC Hero, CNET reader R.E.W. experienced problems with the phone's performance, e-mail syncing, and Bluetooth connectivity. Unfortunately, Sprint was not helpful in correcting the issues and R.E.W couldn't find a real resolution.

As Maggie pointed out, R.E.W. isn't the only person to suffer from a buggy Android upgrade. Indeed, I hear from CNET readers in similar predicaments almost every day. Froyo users, in particular, sent a flood of e-mails describing call drops, Internet connectivity, and poorer battery life. And like R.E.W., most said that they've been unable to find a fix.

Accountability, not technology
Now before you accuse me of being Android hater, understand that I like Android. A lot. The operating system has produced some profound innovation in the cell phone world and has given us many a fantastic handset. And of course, every other smartphone OS on the market, from Windows to BlackBerry to iOS, has its share of bugs.

So my issue is not so much with the bugs themselves, but with how they're handled. As I've found, and many of my readers have found, Android users have no clear recourse when they're experiencing problems with the OS. And no one--not Google, the phone manufacturer, or the carrier--is taking real responsibility when issues occur after an update's release. So where can customers turn?

Who's in charge here?
Though Google may seem like the best answer to that question, it's not so simple. Android updates certainly start with Google, but ultimately they reside on the carriers' servers. Also, since the updates have to pass through several hands before reaching customers, just who to call can be confusing for the end user.

Charles Golvin, principal analyst at Forrester Research, said that the lack of a clear support path has worsened as Android has grown. "It's a serious problem, he said. "But it's not just [Google's] problem." As Golvin explained it, Google begins the process by designing the update and approving the final build. Once that's over, it's passed to manufacturers who then ensure that it works on their devices. The manufacturers then send it to the carriers who check compatibility with their networks before finally releasing to users.

When their phones go haywire, most customers understandably turn to the carrier first. Yet, since carriers didn't build the phone or design the OS, they won't always provide the answers that customers need. "The operator is the first line of defense," Golvin said. "They try to put out the sensors and be proactive, but that's not always so successful."

So can customers move up the food chain? Not always. Manufacturers can be an option, but their tech support is often second line and not customer-facing. And even if they do find an adequate customer support service--HTC offers a toll free number, for example--typically, the reps will be more focused on the hardware. Google can address the software angle, but the company doesn't offer Android tech support beyond its online forums. Remember, that lack of phone support was one of the issues that sunk the otherwise noteworthy Nexus One.

Finding a solution
Fortunately, online forums can be a great resource for people with troubled phones. Not only will you get to interact with experienced Android users, but also you'll get to review a multitude of opinions and solutions. But forums can take you only so far. More often than not, they're difficult to navigate and filter the result that you want. What's more, some people prefer talking to a live person.

On the upside, Golvin said change will most likely come from the carriers. Though selling devices is the priority, they're beginning to realize that they're the last link in a chain. "It's a question of the platform fragmentation and the wide range of [OS] versions that they have to address," he said. "Improvements will come after pressure from the operators."

Without a doubt, Android will continue to be a powerful force in the mobile world. But for all its benefits, Android users need a clear resource for reporting problems and finding solutions. And as an Android fan who wants to see the platform succeed, I hope that happens soon.