Is Android's manufacturer-specific update process good or bad?

With reports that some LG and Samsung Android handsets might not get Gingerbread, one has to ask: is giving manufacturers so much control over updates a good idea?

I've talked about the Android fragmentation issue a couple of times. Developers and users alike seem to disagree on whether so many variations of the Android OS on disparate hardware from many manufacturers creates a real problem. IT folks view fragmentation as a problem, largely because manufacturers and carriers determine when updates will become available to users (they also have the option of customizing Android so that users may have a different interface, access to different features, and a different set of pre-installed apps depending on their device and carrier).

The IT perspective is that a consistent version across devices makes security and management much simpler to maintain. Since it’s the job of IT folks to ensure all business and client information is secure, this is a big deal for them. But it generally isn't as big a deal to the average user.

Whether this manufacturer-based update system is ultimately good or bad has been running through my head ever since Google unveiled Gingerbread (Android version 2.3)on Monday. What's kept the thought going is reports that Samsung wouldn't support Gingerbread on its Galaxy S devices (a direct predecessor to the Nexus S, the premiere Gingerbread phone) and that LG might not support it on its recent Optimums line of Android phone (which remain very successful as a low-cost, entry-level smartphone – and which are now being offered by Verizon, albeit not as inexpensively as by other carriers).

Both reports have since been called into question by the respective manufacturers. That isn't surprising since Gingerbread offers better performance than Froyo, its immediate predecessor, due to enhanced application monitoring and control. Therefore any device capable of running Froyo ought to be pretty capable of running Gingerbread.

While the former IT manager in me is still aghast at Android's lack of centralized version control, the technology consumer in me actually sees it as something of a positive after much of this week's discussion. Without a central source to vet every Android release on every device (as is the case with Apple and the iPhone or RIM and the BlackBerry), that responsibility would have to fall to each carrier.

It isn't ideal situation, because that vetting process inevitably results in roll out delays, but it probably is a better option than allowing every Android user to instantly update their device to a new revision, whether or not the device can handle it. There were a lot of outraged iPhone 3G owners who discovered that the initial iOS 4 release slowed their phones to being almost unusable in some case – and that was with a release supposedly vetted by the manufacturer for the hardware and the OS (although Apple did correct many issues in the iOS 4.1 update this fall). An Android update free-for-all could result in a much bigger mess.

On the other hand, the process could probably be streamlined if users were allowed to download updates direct from their manufacturer as soon as an update was vetted. It would also allow users greater control of when, or if, to update. Things could be even more streamlined if manufacturers and carriers didn't pile on their own skins and pre-installed apps (which also need to be vetted and, in many cases, updated for each release). But, as with the bloatware that ships on many PCs, I don't see this going away any time soon.

Overall, my impression is that most Android users don't see this process as a big problem, a nuisance maybe, but not a big problem. IT folks see it as a huge problem. iOS and seem genuinely mystified and confused by it. It's too early to tell what Windows Phone 7 users think (Microsoft intends to follows Apple's lead, which will be interesting since it has multiple partners actually manufacturing WP7 phones though with tighter control than Google takes over Android). Ultimately, the process is simply another pro, con, or non-issue when choosing platform.

What's your take? If you're an Android user, does this delayed but vetted upgrade process frustrate you or do you even notice it? Would you prefer a more user-defined upgrade system? If you're an iPhone or BlackBerry user, would this decentralized upgrade method keep you from switching to Android? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at www.ryanfaas.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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