Why your Android phone probably isn't upgrading to 4.0

None of the many parties who make your Android phone want to shoulder an upgrade. So none of them do.

If you pick up a cheap Android phone or tablet--from a little-known overseas manufacturer, for example, or maybe as the free option on a contract--you probably expect to be out of luck when it comes to upgrading your phone to the latest version of Google’s smartphone operating system. But what if you bought a version of the most popular Android smartphone of 2010, the Samsung Galaxy S? Or the first Android tablet to really make a splash, the Galaxy Tab? Wouldn’t you kind of expect that a phone made by a leading Android partner, picked up by every major international carrier, and owned by more than 30 million people worldwide would make a software upgrade worth Samsung’s time and effort.

Obviously, you, the person who thinks companies want to engender a sense of trust, support, and care for buyers of $200-and-up devices with long-term contracts have it all wrong. Samsung will not upgrade the Galaxy S or Tab to Android 4.0, or “Ice Cream Sandwich.” The stated reason, translated from a Samsung statement on a Korean forum, is that the devices lack both storage and application memory (ROM and RAM) to support a 4.0 upgrade that includes Samsung’s TouchWiz interface, carrier-specific applications, and, for some models, mobile television streaming and video calling. As tech site The Verge points out, that’s a very specific hedge. The Galaxy S has nearly the same internal hardware as the Nexus S, a phone which is receiving over-the-air updates to Android 4.0 right now. But Samsung wants to give customers its own customized and redesigned version of Android (or “skin”), TouchWiz, and wants to deliver the licensed apps that Verizon, Sprint, and all the others pack onto their phones.

Galaxy S phone by Samsung

There are, of course, other concerns manufacturers like Samsung and the mobile carriers look at when facing down an upgrade. With any upgrade, there comes a good bit of work to test out the latest improvements developed by Google and the open-source community. After crafting and testing, there will still be an uptick in customer support calls. And if a device’s hardware truly is on the edge of upgrade capability, delivering the update can sour customers on a manufacturer, carrier, and Android all at once. I know, for example, four different Droid X owners who upgraded to Android 2.3, or “Gingerbread,” and all four have either dropped their contracts early to switch to an iPhone, or have said they’re swearing off Android as soon as their two-year Verizon agreements are up. Then there’s the supposed charges that manufacturers assess on carriers for “feature” upgrades, which I haven’t verified, or seen verified, but which doesn’t exactly sound like a stretch of the imagination. Motorola, at least, is fairly open about the process and their reasoning, but how many car owners want a multi-party run-down of why it’s taking so long to get their recalled fuel tank replaced?

That’s all well and good. But what does it sound like to a phone buyer, if they even care to hear an excuse? “We’re sorry, but a number of sales agreements and market analyses have led us to decide not to implement a very cool upgrade, one that we didn’t even make ourselves, to the phone that was a top-of-the-line unit one year ago. Please, just buy another $200 Android phone in nine months, when this current two-year contract is up, and, hey, maybe you’ll end up picking one of the few phones that end up getting upgraded two years and a few months from now.”

It’s not that Google doesn’t know how frustrating this can be for customers, and how much resulting damage it does to the Android brand. At this year’s Google I/O conference in May 2011, Google and most of the major carriers and manufacturers pledged to join the Google Update Alliance, and issue “timely” updates for 18 months of the life of any Android phone released from that point on. But that Alliance has majorly faltered, if not failed outright, after a little more than six months. The Galaxy S was released before the Alliance was formed, but I wouldn’t bet $200 that any new phone isn’t suspect to the same excuse, involving a customized “user experience” that’s not compatible.

So the reason your Android phone could very well not get an Android 4.0 upgrade is that it’s no one company’s job to care about your enjoyment of your phone across two years. Google and some talented open-source programmers made the core phone system, a manufacturer fitted those bits to a particular slab of hardware with some exclusive customizations and branding, a cellular carrier added more customizations and branding, and then a store, kiosk, or web site sold you the phone. You can split your displeasure up into a distinct four-way spread, or you can choose another phone.

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