Central control is the big enemy of software freedom

Even open source Android not immune

Quick: name one big difference between Linux and Android. And no, penguins and robots don't count.

The truth is, there are lots of differences between the two platforms, despite their common connection to the Linux kernel. But the one that's most on my mind today?

Upgrades.

Specifically, today is the day (supposedly) that Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S 4G phones should start to get a pushed upgrade to Android 4.1, codenamed Jelly Bean, more than two months after Jelly Bean's June release. I have a Galaxy Nexus phone, so I should be happy, right? Alas, no: Sprint phones are the ones blessed with the upgrade, and I use Verizon.

[Insert expletive here.]

At first, this was frustrating. Then it became ludicrous to the point of being almost funny. Now it's not funny anymore, because someone in the long supply chain between Google, Verizon, and myself is not fulfilling the promise that Nexus users were made when Jelly Bean was first released: that Nexus owners would be the first to see the new version of Android.

It's not only the delay that's frustrating; it's the fact that as of August 24, the promise was explicitly broken. On that day, the Asus Transformer Pad 300 was the first device here in the U.S. to start getting Jelly Bean. The Samsung Galaxy S III has already seen Jelly Bean roll-outs in Germany just a couple days prior to that.

At this point, savvy phone users will want to start pointing me to various instructions on how to install an unofficial Jelly Bean build on my phone now or grab the semi-official Google AOSP pre-release and install it. And it's very true, I can probably sit down and jack my phone around to get Jelly Bean.

But this is the kind of operation that involves complicated steps, such as rooting a phone, that the average user shouldn't and shouldn't be expected to have to perform.

Similarly, people will argue that I should have plunked down the $300 for the unlocked Galaxy Nexus phone when I had the opportunity. These phones, which are not tied to the updating whims of any particular carrier, have been able to run Jelly Bean since, oh, early July. To be honest, I considered it, but I figured that having a Google-branded developer reference phone would be enough to get an update in a reasonable timeframe, so I decided to save the money.

It is a decision, along with choosing Verizon, that I now regret.

Beyond my personal set of frustrations, this entire saga serves to illustrate (yet again) what is fundamentally flawed with the mobile software distribution model: whenever you rely on a centralized distributor acting as a gatekeeper for your hardware and software, you--the end user--are going to get screwed.

It's not a question of "if," it's a question of "when."

It barely matters if the software in question is open source. Android is, and it only helps a little. You can download the binaries and flash them onto your phone yourself, which is more than you can realistically do for iOS, but for most mobile device users who have locked phones, this is a complicated and potentially bricking process. Not to mention it runs the risk of ticking off the carrier.

The opportunity for freedom is broken on the iOS side of mobile-land, too--it's just that Apple holds all of the power, not the carriers. Apple iOS devices are at least upgraded uniformly and relatively quickly, but try to get an app Apple doesn't like past their App Store monitors, like VLC or more recently Drone+, and you'll be out of luck.

With Android, it's the carriers that hold sway, which leads to debacles like this Jelly Bean delay and the fact that 57.5 percent of Android phones are still running Android 2.3.x (Gingerbread) and 20.9 percent are running 4.0.x (Ice Cream Sandwich) as of Sept. 4. Because they are the gatekeepers, they can upgrade or not to their heart's content, leaving a very fragmented developer environment and a frustrated user base.

Unlocked devices, despite their premium cost, are one solution to this problem. It's just kind of sad that freedom from central control has to cost users more.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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