Android manufacturers withholding updates and worsening platform fragmentation?

A T-Mobile insider claims manufacturers are deliberately withholding updates to boost new phone sales.

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I've talked about Android fragmentation here before, particularly about how various people view it as a major concern (IT professionals mostly along with some developers) while others (including most Android users) see it as a non-issue. Everyone, however, can agree that most Android updates bring new features, bug fixes, and security patches with them – all good reasons to look forward to updates arriving for your Android device over the air from your carrier.

A new wrinkle in the update and fragmentation story emerged today. AndroidSpin is quoting an unnamed T-Mobile employee as saying that the carrier is being told not to release the Android 2.2 update (Froyo) to customers that own the Samsung Vibrant. The reason: to increase sales of the new Vibrant 4G.

The kicker is that the Vibrant 4G's specs are largely identical to the existing Vibrant devices. The only major difference (aside from name and branding) is that the Vibrant 4G sports a forward-facing camera and some additional multimedia features. It also is able to take full advantage of T-Mobile's HSPA+ network (which the carrier is branding as 4G). That HSPA+ advantage, however, has nothing to do with the hardware. The reason the Vibrant 4G can take full advantage of those speeds is because it ships with Froyo pre-installed.

T-Mobile allegedly has an update for Vibrant users ready to be pushed out, but is being asked not to push it out because doing so would remove a major advantage that the newer phone offers (increased data performance).

Personally, I'm not sure this is entirely Samsung strong-arming T-Mobile. After all, selling newer phones also ties customers into a new contract (and, depending on the age of their existing contract, may allow T-Mobile to sell the devices at a higher cost to users). Regardless of which company is behind the move, it represents another factor in the fragmentation debate (presuming the report is accurate).

If true, this means that manufacturers (potentially including others beyond Samsung) are deliberately preventing users from getting updates that could be critical to preserving privacy and security in addition to keeping features from them for the sake of more sales. This should be a concern for all Android users, regardless of your position on whether fragmentation as a whole is an issue.

It certainly should be alarming to IT managers because it means that there may be no way to ensure complete security of devices over the long term. Having been an IT manager, this would certainly be a reason to avoid Android as a platform to invest in. It would also make me question how much access I'd grant Android users who want to use their own devices on my network.

Considering Froyo offers enterprise features not available in previous Android release, this is a one-two punch for Android in the workplace. It makes the entire platform less desirable and it prevents Samsung Vibrant users (and potentially users of other phones) from gaining as much workplace access and support as they might otherwise enjoy. Not good news.

Of course, the ability for manufactures and/or carriers to behave this way does underscore one of the arguments that fragmentation is a problem. Other common smartphone platforms like the iPhone, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone 7 offer a much more streamline and controlled update release schedule. In the case of iPhone and BlackBerry, there's only manufacturer in charge of which devices get which updates and when. Windows Phone 7 features a greater range of manufacturers, but Microsoft has said it will follow Apple's update model and make updates directly available to consumers on its own timetable (Microsoft is also keeping manufacturers on a much tighter leash than Google).

On a final note, there are many Android devices on the market that have yet to receive an update to Froyo. To find out the status and expected release schedule for your device, check out Computerworld's guide to Android upgrades.

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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