Android’s achilles heel is legacy devices

At MWC Eric Schmidt announced that Google has 150,000 apps in the Android Market. Impressively, the company is activating 350,000 Android devices a day. The next iteration of Android will bring together Gingerbread and Honeycomb (and  will be known as Ice Cream Sandwich), and following this firmware is moving to a fixed 6 month release cycle.

Here’s a short list of manufacturers who exhibited Android smartphones and tablets at MWC: HTC, Fujitsu, Huawei, ZTE, Sony Ericsson, Haier, Samsung, LG, Motorola, Acer, Lenovo, Archos, Dell, Aigo, Sharp and Toshiba. That’s just reeling them off the top of my head and by no means exhaustive.

Quite a lot of hardware is going to be running Android by the end of the year. Reading through these facts the logical conclusion is that the Android Operating System is an unstoppable robot monster.

Much has been written on the subject of Android fragmentation, this is an ever popular topic and is likely to trend again. Famously, when quizzed on the issue at Google I/O 2010, Android’s Andy Rubin said:

“Some of the press has called this ‘fragmentation’ and that’s probably the wrong word for this. The better word for it is ‘legacy.’ These phones and devices…the iteration…is incredibly fast.”

Many developers would disagree with Rubin, engineering an app for a consistent user experience on a such a vast array of devices is the very definition of fragmentation. But that’s not the key issue here, developers have dealt with that problem for years in Java apps for featurephones, in the old Windows Mobile and even in Symbian iterations (UIQ, S60, ^3).

As a matter of fact, Rubin is right, the key issue is legacy devices. As a developer, with much effort I can get the user experience right on many different mobiles, but will my app be compatible with many different firmware versions of the same Operating System? That is the challenge.

Let’s have a look at the historical dataset that Android publishes at its developer portal. This data is taken from Android devices accessing the Market and shows firmware currently in use:

Firmware versions are shown from Cupcake (1.5) through to Froyo (2.2). The Froyo SDK was released in May 2010. It is running on roughly 60% of devices that use the Android Market. The Gingerbread (2.3) SDK was released in December 2010.  Cnet recently reported that users of the HTC Desire, one of the better selling Android smartphones, will not receive a Gingerbread update until some time in the Spring. Due to hardware limitations, some on market smartphones running Froyo may never receive an update at all.

Firmware updates are delivered over the air and pushed out market by market under the direction of the network operators who subsidise your mobile purchase. There are exceptions to this rule, it’s a sweeping generalisation but for the majority of folk, this is the way it works and this is the way it’s going to work in the future.

So, if I buy an HTC Desire in the UK from Vodafone, I need to wait for Vodafone to push out my firmware over the air (FOTA) upgrade. If I buy a Samsung Captivate from AT&T, I’ll be hanging on for AT&T to update me.

The lifecycle of a mobile phone in the consumer’s hands is 18 to 24 months. Android is releasing to a 6 month cycle. Upwards of 30 manufacturers and OEMs are supplying mobiles to more than 1,200 network operators. There will always be a large number of legacy devices on market, at any moment in time many will be waiting for an upgrade. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is fast becoming an unholy mess.

You have to ask: would Steve Jobs allow this? No, that’s his genius in making the world crave one slowly evolving device and that’s the benefit of a manufacturer controlling the distribution of an Operating System. Less we forget, Nokia have successfully managed FOTA for their network operator and mass market customers for years.

The most important question though is: what will the customer think of this? Will FOTA even matter in the long-run? After all, most people aren’t running nightly builds on their mobiles and perhaps won’t care whether their firmware is the latest available.

Well, remember there is no approvals process for Android Market apps, you just load them up and they’re published right away. Customers might care about FOTA if the cool app they just bought or that awesome app their friend just showed them won’t work on their smart new mobile phone.