Upgrade woes show Android's growing pains

Android

Will Android's scattergun approach to operating system updates alienate users

Android handsets and tablets are the talk of the tech world, but upgrade inconsistencies are causing trouble for Google's mobile operating system.

There have been reports all year of frustrated Android users waiting for the latest updates to the mobile operating system from either operators or manufacturers.

When the upgrades finally arrive, customers complain about glitches and errors. O2 had to pull an update to version 2.2 of Android after users reported it crashed their HTC Desire handsets, and a similar situation arose moving the Dell Streak to version 2.1.

It's a bit of a mess at the moment and there is a lot of noise in the developer community that it's too fragmented

The glitches are not Google or Android's fault, but are symptoms of an unruly system. At the heart of the problem, say experts, are the multiple iterations of the operating system that have to be applied to dozens of different handsets from multiple manufacturers.

“It's a bit of a mess at the moment and there is a lot of noise in the developer community that it's too fragmented,” said software development consultant Matthew Baxter-Reynolds. “There are so many manufacturers and developers and they are working in different versions – 1.6, 2.1 and 2.2 – and no-one really knows what devices are running on which one.”

According to official Android figures, while the newest handsets and tablets feature 2.2, dubbed Froyo, there are still plenty of legacy handsets in the market. At the beginning of August, 15.3% of users were still using version 1.5 and 20.3% were on 1.6, while 2.1 and 2.2 claimed 59.7% and 4.5% respectively.

That's four different versions on the go at once, and with Android 1.5 only 18 months old, developers and manufacturers are struggling to keep pace.

“One of the problems is that Google is releasing updates so quickly that developers and manufacturers don't really have a chance to catch up,” said Andreas Constantinou, research director at industry analyst Vision Mobile.

“It has released five pretty major upgrades," said Constantinou. "That's way faster than any other OS vendor has been able to manage and that creates software issues for vendors and developers. By the time they get up to speed with it there is a new version to work with.”

Learning from Microsoft

The situation is further muddled by the fact that both operators and hardware manufacturers are involved in the process.

“Manufacturers put their own look and feel on the hardware and that can have an effect too,” said Baxter-Reynolds. “At the moment I think it would be fair to say that consumers and the developer community are not very well served. Google hasn't got its head around this idea of working with multiple hardware platforms yet.”

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