Androids Everywhere, But Update Model Broken

Dec 28, 2011 (05:12 AM EST)

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Proponents of Android claim that one of its benefits is the ability of manufacturers and carriers to customize the platform. This lets each OEM differentiate its devices. Carriers can then add their own special sauce, further adding to the mix.

In 2011, 93 different Android phones have been counted across nine U.S. carriers. Add in unlocked phones purchased from abroad, and the number of new models in use in the United States could well be above 100. This reminds me when feature phones where in their heyday. Every carrier had several different models with unique selling points.

The advantage of Android, of course, is in its ability to share common features across all models, regardless of the carrier or manufacturer. Features like Gmail, Google Maps, and the hundreds of thousands of apps in the various Android applications markets give users semi-consistent capabilities regardless of the model they buy.

AT&T had the broadest selection of devices, numbering 21, followed by Verizon with its 17 models. Nearly a third of Big Red's selection bore the company's Droid brand. While T-Mobile and Sprint are a distant third and fourth place in market share, that isn't the case when it comes to Android phones. They launched 16 and 15 devices, respectively. The smaller carriers such as US Cellular, Cricket, and Virgin each had at least three Android launches this year.

46 of the phones purport to be capable of 4G speed, but only 9 came with 4G LTE. Still, that group pretty much sums up the LTE market, since Blackberry, iOS, and Windows Phone devices didn't launch any LTE choices this year.

While this differentiation is liked by some people, it also causes problems. For example, Samsung puts its TouchWiz interface on its Android phones. It also has various versions of TouchWiz on the Bada system, older Windows Mobile devices, and even the Symbian-based Samsung i8910. Samsung is so enamored with its custom interface, it has decided that Samsung Galaxy SII, released just this summer, won't get an upgrade to Android 4.0, also known as Ice Cream Sandwich. The brand new device doesn't have enough RAM or ROM to run both ICS and TouchWiz. It probably never occurred to Samsung to release an update without TouchWiz and give its users the latest version of Android.

Having so many devices also makes it a nightmare to keep them all up to date. In fact, many manufacturers don't even try. A lot of Android phones are released one or even two OS versions behind and many more are never updated once released.

It is a double-edged sword. Android has put inexpensive smartphones in the hands of millions of users that might not have otherwise been able to afford them, while fans of the platform have been able to buy some high powered devices. The update model though, is broken.