Nov 10

Android fragmentation strikes home

I’ve been shopping for an Android phone.

There, I’ve said it. I feel better now.

However, I do have to plead extenuating circumstances. It’s for my son. He’s 13. He’s ready to replace his crappy “feature phone” with a smartphone, and, rebel that he is, he’s eager to blaze his own trail.

I’m game. Experiencing joy and pain is part of growing up, and I figure Android will give him ample supply of both. However, thanks to Android fragmentation, the pain is showing up early.

We went to the AT&T Wireless store. They had two phones of interest to us, both of which were running Android 2.1. Knowing this wasn’t the current OS, I asked our sales rep a simple question:

Will these phones be upgradable to Android 2.2?

I purposefully didn’t ask when. I just wanted to make sure these models were at least capable of running 2.2.

The rep was honest with us — he didn’t know. But, model names in hand, I figured I could do my own Googling at home.

Wrong. I found nothing on the phone makers’ sites. I found nothing on AT&T’s site. I found no independent articles addressing the upgradability of the models we were considering.

So, a week later, I returned to my AT&T Wireless store. This time I planned to get pushier about it. Hey, they should be able to answer a question about the phone they’re selling, right?

This time, a very sweet woman helped us. She understood my concern, but she hadn’t a clue what the answer was. “Let me find out for you,” she said.

We waited for a long time. Long enough for my son to go through a complete relationship cycle with the Windows Phone 7 models — from flirtation to breakup.

Finally our lady returned with bad news. Unable to ascertain the facts, she couldn’t guarantee that these phones would ever get Android 2.2. She wished me luck searching for answers, and half-jokingly invited me to tell her if I ever found out.

I honestly find this whole thing shocking.

Granted, most people simply want a phone that works and probably have no expectation that it should get better over time. But the more technologically aware — not an insignificant number — genuinely do care. For us, there is only frustration.

Even if you’re an Android fan, it’s enough to make you appreciate Apple’s world a little more. Though at some point older iPhones lack the hardware to take advantage of new iOS features, there’s never a question about upgrading your software. You just click the Update button in iTunes. The idea that a customer should have to wonder if a brand-new phone will ever run the latest OS is absurd.

Rule #1 in customer satisfaction: treat your customers as you’d like to be treated. We can safely assume that no Google or AT&T employee would want to be treated like this. So why does it happen?

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  • Gkotsis

    Point taken, but since new iOSes come with limited (or no) support for older iPhones, how certain are you that iPhone 3G will *actually* run iOs 5.x?

    And more importantly, whom should i ask?

    Disclaimer: Sent from my iPhone

  • neilw

    Since when did the carriers care about how they treat their customers?

    If there’s one single thing Apple did with the iPhone that was “noble”, it was to minimize the role of the carrier in creating and managing the customer experience. Unfortunately, other vendors possess neither the leverage nor the conviction to make this happen.

    You can’t say Google necessarily approves, since “their” phone, the Nexus One, has been treated to early updates of all releases. But they voluntarily forfeited control over this in the way they opened up and licensed the OS, so they’d certainly not be in a position to complain either.

    Android proponents seem to be willing to accept this sort of garbage treatment as payment for their handsets’ “openness”. To each his own I guess.

  • ken segall

    New phones have new hardware features, so it’s understandable if certain iOS features won’t work on older iPhones. Currently, iOS 4 can be installed on iPhones made from July 2008 forward (3G). That’s way, way different from not being able to install the latest version of Android on a phone that’s brand-spanking new.

  • @Gktosis, you are missing the point. Apple guarantees software updates (that aren’t dependent on new hardware) for at least 2 years on all iPhones. Whether it’s a simple bug fix or a brand new feature, you’re never left in the dark with an iPhone.

  • Ken, great article!

    Google has NEVER understood ANYTHING AT ALL about customer service.

    I was having serious technical problems with 2 Google products: Google Voice and Google Mail. I tried contacting Google for weeks, and there was absolutely NOBODY available to help me, neither by email nor phone.

    To this day, I can’t use either of those products because my technical issues are unresolved to this day.

    Compare this to Apple, who has DOZENS of ways to get technical support DIRECTLY from the company, even on Christmas Day.

    Even Dell, as bad as they are, at least has incomprehensible customer service reps in India who are standing by to read you answers from a script.

    Google is just a horrible company, all the way around.

    Not to mention Google’s desire to end net neutrality (the very thing that led them to market dominance), which makes you realize how close they come to “evil” on the moral compass.

  • Well I guess this is what you get when an inherently B2B based company seeks to gain access to C (thats you and me).

    Apple is a B2C company, built from the ground up with that objective in mind. Google is a B2B company built the same way but to serve businesses.

    As Google takes its brand to the Consumer they also need to change their company – fundamentally.

    Its hard to have two masters….one might say even impossible?


  • janey

    This is why I scrapped Android. I bought an Android phone a while back and it had Android 1.5 on it. I waited and waited for the 1.6 update and was happy when it finally came… only to find that it didn’t fix any of the serious issues I was having. It added more whiz bang features, but left significant data loss causing bugs. Then I found out that it might never see 2.x.. apps started coming out that required 2.x. But no, no 2.x for my less than 6 months old phone. Already it was left in the dust. The usual answer I received? “Oh, you need to root your phone.” REALLY?! No answer on whether or not that would solve any of the problems, of course.

    I gave up on Android and went back to the iPhone and have been very happy with it.

  • Alfiejr

    “So why does it happen?”

    because Google’s real customers are the telcos, not you, sucker. once the telco gets you into a two year contract with a big early termination fee, they know you are trapped.

    Apple will update your iPhone’s OS as much as the hardware will allow for at least the two year term of your contract (and beyond). at which point you probably will want to replace it with a new one anyway, starting another two year contract cycle.

    and don’t forget – there is a real market for selling your old iPhone at a decent price. you think there will ever be one for crippled old Android phones? or you can use the older iPhone like an iPod touch around the house or give it to your kid. never have to buy another iPod. or just install Skype and you have a second no-contract phone.

    Android is just a commodity.

  • Every carrier is treating Android just like it treated other phone OSs: brand the hell out of it and add some “features” that are designed to shunt you into giving them more money. And they’re not doing this in a manner that’s nice and modular.

    Which means updating the OS isn’t a matter of just pushing the new binaries out; they’ve got to merge the new version with their variant and run it through QA. And they don’t want to spend their money on that.

    I like my Nexus One a lot, but I look at the MyTouch Slides I got my boyfriends and wince at all the stuff that’s been changed mostly just for the sake of change. And at the fact that they’re still running Eclair (2.1) when I’m probably going to be seeing Gingerbread (2.3) soon.

    Yeah, we could root the things and put Cyanogen or something on them, but we shouldn’t *have* to do that to have up-to-date systems. These are not stunted little phones; these are full-fledged pocket computers that are just waiting for some serious exploits to start bouncing around the ecosystem.

  • Kaz

    “or you can use the older iPhone like an iPod touch around the house or give it to your kid. never have to buy another iPod. or just install Skype and you have a second no-contract phone”

    sounds like my plan for my android phone when I upgrade next year. Or does the stuff on my sd card magically disappear when I upgrade..?

  • Steve W, Indialantic FL

    You are all missing or obfuscating the point when you insist on call these phones “Android Phones”. They are not. The only “Android Phone” is / was the Nexus One. How did that turn out?

    Apple claims that one of their strategic advantages is the ability to control the destiny of both their hardware and their software. Google is offering hardware makers a chance to obtain the same advantage. Having done so, they can’t take away that advantage and insist that hardware makers… do anything! Hardware makers take Android and use it as the foundation on which to build their own OS – at which point it stops being Android.

    Another strategic advantage that Apple claims is the ability to adhere to their own schedule. Apple doesn’t let Intel dictate their release schedule. Apple pulled out of MacWorld for the same reason. Pundits like to prognosticate on Apple’s release schedule, and downrate AAPL when they think Apple is “late”; like how iOS 4.2 was supposedly “delayed” – even though it was released in November AS PROMISED!

    HTC, Motorola, RIM, etc. don’t have that problem. They don’t update their hardware, they just release new hardware – all the time. Now, Apple haters want these companies to act more like Apple – how stupid is that?

  • Hasn’t 2.2 been out for several months now? I don’t think any UK providers are still selling 2.1 phones.

  • Ben

    I’m not sure I would say the 3G “runs” iOS 4… more like it “walks.” It’s nice it accepts the update but it’s not really an update when your phone becomes less usable afterwards.

  • Ben — iOS 4.0 was indeed unusable on the iPhone 3G — we have an iPhone 4 and a 3G in our house, and I kept the 3G on 3.2 until 4.1 was released. iOS 4.1 and 4.2, though, are quite usable on the 3G, and add a few features. It’s certainly not “less usable” than it was with 3.2.

  • The real problem here is the carrier and the manufacturer; they are in the business of selling phones!

    They have *no interest* in updating their phones for free, they want you to buy a new one, extending your contract and include software made by partners (the one you can’t remove).

    It the mobile business like it was in 2001; if you want new features (software or hardware) you have to buy a new phone. Period.

    As Steve W. mentioned, Google gave them the tool (Android) to do business like it has been for years, and it’s sad.

    Manufacturers don’t have to pay for a license and they don’t have to pay for the R&D or managing apps. If I was in their business (selling phones), I would have done the exact same thing.

    And I agree, the Nexus One was the only Android phone and Google discontinued it because they needed manufacturers (and carriers); the Nexus One was clearly getting on their way.

    Thanks to Google, carriers and manufacturers can continue their greedy business.

  • You know for so long the Apple fan boys have been using “Android fragmentation” as ammo for when ever they want to try and bring down Android.

    As you can clearly see, Android is no longer as fragmented as it once was. However there is still room for improvement. I came across an article that touched point on some of Android fragmentation issues and how they can be overcome. You can read the article here: http://getyourgadgetsgoing.com/2010/12/02/is-android-fragmentation-coming-to-an-end/

  • Tristan, there’s a lot of huffing and puffing at the link above, but the fact is that _every_ new iPhone sold since summer 2008 can run the current shipping version of iOS, without carrier interference, and without rooting. Android will never get to that level of uniformity.