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ZDNet’s Adrian Kingsley-Hughes had an alarming blog today.

Quoting a third-party report from Chitika Insights and Google’s own public stats, it appears that 60% of iPhones are running iOS 6 just 3 weeks after its release, while Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, after 3 months, resides on just 2% of Android devices.

The most ‘popular’ flavor remains Android 2.3, Gingerbread, which runs on 55.8% of Android devices, despite being three versions behind and not being updated for a year.

gingerbread dudes

After Gingerbread, the next most popular is Ice Cream Sandwich, which after a year has just 23.7% share.

Now, mobile devices have a short lifespan. 2 years is typical; 3-4 years is pushing it. So Google’s inability to get more than half of Android users off a 22 month old flavor (Gingerbread was released in December 2010, though to be fair, no devices appeared until after that Christmas) is, in the post-PC era, equivalent to Windows 7 taking three long years to bypass Windows XP (which, coincidentally, was released 11 years ago).

Google can take steps like hand out the latest Android SDKs 2-3 months before its official release. That will help ensure that new devices have the latest updates. But it doesn’t help with existing devices, which often never get updates.

This is bad for users, who miss out on cool new features or security fixes, but also bad for developers, who are forced to develop for a lowest common denominator lest they cause their app to break.

Kingsley is right when he ascribes the problem to “so many cooks with their hands in the Android broth.”

(Speaking of Android, check out the trio of webcasts about managing Android devices and building Android apps for enterprises.)

The handset makers and the carriers each want to customize Android before they release it to users. Often, that means no updates will ever arrive, because neither of the above parties is incentivized to do them. As Kingsley says, “the handset makers have sold you a phone and hope to never hear from you again until it’s time to buy again,” while “the carriers already have you hooked up to a multi-year contract, and as such don’t seem to care about what operating system your smartphone or tablet runs.”

Kingsley offers some solutions: work closely with select OEMs and carriers, or bypass carriers in favor of handset makers.

Me? I favor a market-based solution. Sign contracts with carriers and handset makers that explicitly reward them a) the faster they deliver Android updates to users; b) the faster their users download those updates. And give them the chance to earn significant incremental revenue if they truly hit their numbers.

Why? Because reducing fragmentation and getting users onto the latest version of Android makes the latest, greatest apps available to them.

That will boost app sales at Google Play. And it will also cut development time and cost for developers, freeing them write more and better-quality games and apps. And that builds the Android ecosystem, in turn attracting more customers.

If I were Google, instead of nagging or beating its partners into compliance, I would make it in their financial interest to update Android faster. Offer a carrot rather than the stick. I doubt Google has tried this approach. But it’s the one that I think could make a big difference.

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  1. Jarret Pazahanick

    I agree the IOS6 adoption has been very impressive and people have gotten conditioned to upgrade as they know they are going to get new free functionality and for the most part it is an easy (albeit slow at time) upgrade with minimal risk.

    I couldnt help getting a chuckle out of your “

    If I were Google, instead of nagging or beating its partners into compliance, I would make it in their financial interest to update Android faster. Offer a carrot rather than the stick. I doubt Google has tried this approach.”

    as SAP has had very slow adoption for their newer releases over the years and as chosen the stick (higher maintenance) vs the carrot. To bad they dont listen your advice as I am sure that would make some customers very happy 🙂

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  2. Steve Rumsby

    I’ve always been very frustrated by this aspect of Android. My current phone, bought 12 months ago, is running 2.2 and will never be updated from there. Apple’s newest iOS 6 runs on the 3+ year old iPhone 3GS!

    Of course, Apple can only do this because they have control over both hardware and software, and the openness of Android has produced some useful diversity, so you can’t just say that Apple does it better. I wish there was a way to move Android closer to Apple’s standard here, though. Maybe your suggestion would work?

    The biggest reason this problem still exists, though, is that most people don’t see it as a problem. The mobile world is dominated by the volumes of the consumer market, and consumers, on the whole, don’t care about this. I don’t see this changing any time soon.

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  3. Stephen Johannes

    Even though I’m an iPhone user, I’m going to have to say the most common argument against this issue is that folks don’t need the updates, because their phone is working and they can use it.  For some reason people tend to forget that most consumer electronic devices with upgradeable firmware, do not get updated more than once after they are released. I think my televisions and stereo receivers have only had one firmware update in their entire lifespan to correct a major issue.  However not getting any more updates didn’t prevent me from still using them properly.

    I took a look in my kid’s toyboxes and found a lot of old Samsung feature phones that my wife and I used to own.  I can honestly say that none of them ever were updated, even though they could have been.  That’s how most, if not all of those phones worked.  If you wanted new features you bought a new phone on upgrade.  I think the Android handset makers still operate that way and honestly I don’t see a problem except when you are paying $150+ for the upgrade.  They need a reason to sell their new phone and having the latest software is a good reason.  On my feature phones I really didn’t care because they were normally free or $50, so getting a new phone was not an issue.

    That being said I get annoyed when folks complain about Apple not making every new feature available for every model released in the last two years.  I like the fact that Apple will give you some form of regular updates for your phone during the life of the contract and afterwards you are on your own if you buy the phone during the “launch period”.  Now I will say I was disappointed that the original iPad does not get the iOS 6 features(I wanted the guided controls so my kids don’t mess up the settings as much), but I can still use the device, which all that really matters. 

    At the end of the day most of the non-technical users who just want a smartphone only care if it provides the features they want and if it works.  If you have a good feature set then software upgrades are bonus.  That makes developers life more difficult, but average user is not going to notice.  My wife wouldn’t update her iPhone or really know about it unless I told her the updates are available.

    Take care,

    Stephen

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    1. Steve Rumsby

      As devices get more functionality, the need for updates grows too. My TV has had several upgrades already, but then it supports YouTube and several other video streaming and TV catchup services natively, and well as streaming from PCs and media servers on the local network. Expect more frequent updates with the latest crop of smart TVs.

      Until I got my first smartphone about 4 years ago, I don’t think I’d updated the firmware in a phone ever. And all of them worked flawlessly until the day they were retired.

      My current Android phone, though, won’t connect to my corporate WiFi network because the network uses WPA-Enterprise which Android 2.2 doesn’t support. 2.3 supports it, but there will never be a 2.3 upgrade for my phone. There are also apps I’d like to run that require 2.3.

      As I said, these issues don’t currently affect many people, but the world of smartphones is changing more rapidly now than in the past, and certainly than the world of feature phones did, and i think this will become more important as our devices become more connected.

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      1. Stephen Johannes

        Agree, but the business model has not changed.  In fact now some carriers such as AT&T have moved the upgrade cycle from 18 months to 20 months to lessen the cost of the handset subsidy.  I hate to say this but all smartphone makers(including Apple), want to sell you a new phone after two years to get the new features.  Phones are still considered disposable goods and not something that should get updates.  I believe Apple only provides updates because it keeps managing the overall ecosystem experience easier. 

        I think we are still not quite at a point where the hardware capability exceeds the software available like on most desktop/laptop machines.  The only real reason to upgrade a laptop/desktop right now is because of physical hardware failures and not because you need new hardware to perform the most common tasks. I hate to say this but most common tasks which now include very basic video editing perform “ok” on even the cheapest of laptops.  Planned obsolescence is name of the game for most things now of days.

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        1. Steve Rumsby

          I don’t mind the idea of upgrading a phone every two years. As you say, technology is moving far enough to warrant that. Most Android phones, though, never even come close to running a current version of Android for that long. Many are sold running an out of date version and never catch up. If Android handset manufacturers could guarantee OS upgrades for two years, that would be good enough for me. Remember, Apple’s standard (iOS 6 and iPad 1 aside) is 3 years so far.

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