30
Oct
Android1

There's been some discussion of late that, perhaps, Android phone manufacturers are iterating handsets at a pace which is detrimental to product polish and subsequent software support. In fact, a couple of days ago I took a look at the state of Android phones on US carriers with a few simple charts.

I also promised to write another post looking at how quickly, as opposed to how prolifically, Android handsets are moving in the US marketplace. I decided to look at two carriers - T-Mobile and Verizon. In the interest of cleaning up the timelines, I decided not to include budget handsets or QWERTY phones, because we all know the subtext of this whole conversation: the iPhone. Apple's annual iPhone release strategy has been lauded over the allegedly haphazard and inconsistent product releases of Android manufacturers, and this has been used as evidence to suggest that manufacturers need to "slow down" in order to put out truly competitive products.

Anyway, here are the charts:

tmograph

verizongraph

Charts based on data from GSMArena. Does not include QWERTY phones, unlocked phones, or budget phones.

The pattern is quite visible - Android phone manufacturers have definitely stepped up the rate of touch-handset iteration in the last year. On T-Mobile, Samsung and HTC are operating on a handset release cycle that is closer to every 6 months than every year.

Motorola will have released three major touch handsets on Verizon over the course of six months once the RAZR is available next month. Samsung also appears to have a 6 month strategy on Verizon, and HTC's release of the Rhyme (though it's not a true flagship handset) seems to indicate it's stepping up its pace as well.

Obviously, we can't really know if manufacturers intend to keep this pace up, as there's been significant incentive for them to iterate new 4G handsets since last year, when Sprint launched the US's first major 4G network - and it's been a 4G arms-race ever since. New network technology requires new hardware, so it's entirely possible device release cycles will slow in the coming year, particularly on Sprint and Verizon's networks. T-Mobile may have fewer handset releases in the coming year for other, unrelated (read: AT&T) reasons.

But back to our question - are manufacturers moving too fast, at the expense of quality and software support? It's clear that consumers have a growing number of Android options out there, and manufacturers are doing their best to provide product differentiation among increasingly stiff competition. It's certainly conceivable that a DROID X2 or BIONIC owner would feel a bit slighted by Motorola's upcoming RAZR. It's not unreasonable to surmise that the RAZR will likely receive a quicker bump to Android 4.0 (if the X2 gets the bump at all) than either of those phones, simply because it's newer.

And I know if I bought a Samsung DROID Charge only to see the Samsung Galaxy Nexus hitting shelves 6 months later, I'd be more than a little steamed. Still, there's also the very real fact that we're talking about an area in the tech world that is moving by leaps and bounds every 6 months, and manufacturers are trying desperately to keep up with the curve. Can we really blame them for making better phones as the technology becomes available? Or is the plight of users getting "left behind" in terms of software support something manufacturers should be paying more attention to instead of churning out hardware more quickly? It's a tough call, but in my opinion, living on the bleeding edge always carries that risk, and sometimes you're going to be on the losing end of it.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go stare angrily at my BIONIC.

David Ruddock
David's phone is whatever is currently sitting on his desk. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • Nobody

    Nexus : Google :: iPhone : Apple

    I will never buy an Android phone that is not either Pure Google or can run CyanogenMod.

    We know this happens. They have no incentive to update their legacy devices, even if legacy is a month old. They sold it to you. They have your money.

  • Former Andy Fan

    Android OEMs are DEFINITELY pushing new hardware out too quickly.

    The fact is when ICS launches, there will still be a sizeable number of 2.2 devices for sale in the U.S., which is 2 (or 3 depending on how you place HoneyComb in the phone OS hierarchy) major Android versions behind.

    Android OEMs have close to zero incentive to keep updating the software of devices already released, outside of consumer perception of the OEMs.

    The disconnect between OEM releases and US consumer reality of 2 year contracts will eventually begin to erode Android sales. Tech enthusiasts/1st adopters will be slower to but new devices for fear of the 'Next Big Thing' coming out within a few months, and will trickle down to the 'Masses' who will wonder why their 2.X phone can't do the same things an ICS phone can.

    How much will that affect Android market share? Most likely not a lot in the next year, due to the proliferation of Android devices on nearly every carrier in the US at multiple price points and the number of consumers still to upgrade from dumb/feature phones.

    As the US smartphone market matures, Android fragmentation will become more of an issue. Consumers on their 2nd, 3rd, or higher generation of smartphones will become less tolerant of their devices becoming technological dead-ends less than 6 months into a 2 year contract, like the LG G2X.

    Unfortunately, so long as google continues to have a laissez-faire attitude toward OEM customization and specifications, Android will continue to fragment and consumers will become more frustrated with the platform

    • ed

      its funny you should mention devices being 2 or 3 updates behind...if you go to cyanogen mod you can see that some of the devices that manufactures gave up on are clearly able to go run GB...the htc hero is running GB on their site and i dont even think it was actually designed to go that far

      • Mark

        Had an old MyTouch 3G Slide, it was a mid-level Android phone in it's time. Not a cheap POS but not super high end either. After upgrading it from 2.1 to 2.2 many many months after it was sold, they just stopped. The other day I got ticked off and found out CM7 runs just fine on it, now running Android 2.3.7 and it runs fast. HTC abandoned the phone but the hacking community hasn't quite yet. I really think manufacturers should strike up deals with Cyanogen and his team. They obviously can kick out stable updates much faster than they can and Cyanogen and his team would be tickled to have their work end up in an official manufacturer-supported update.

    • Mike

      Google has made it pretty clear that they like the customizations made by manufacturers and feel it strengthens the platform. This is all on the manufacturers and I don't see it stopping anytime soon.

      Even worse then not upgrading phones is manufacturers releasing new phones with old versions of Android on it. If history holds true, in 6 months most phones will still be releasing with Gingerbread on them.

  • JimJam

    I really think manufacturers are spreading themselves a bit thin with the shear amount of devices they are putting out and it would seem none of them are even running the same version of their own skins so it's not like they can just do one upgrade and push out to all their devices.

    That aside I believe they need to slow down and start pushing out true killer devices.

    Moto have been crazy and should never have released the Bionic after such a delay and instead just put it all on the Razr. They don't have any real killer devices, since the Droid X they have only been tiny iterative changes and nothing really big and wow!

  • mostlyDigital

    The issue with Android isn't fragmentation as much as proliferation. I carry a Droid Incredible which is identified as a Verizon phone and an HTC phone. Once the Incredible was released (or more likely feasible) other manufacturers and cellular providers needed one in their product line. If a manufacturer is three or four months behind then their next phone is likely to have a more advanced feature set. Now the whole process starts all over again.

    The result is phones that are superseded in a few months which means fewer sales per model which means higher per-user costs to keep the phone updated.

    The solutions include vanilla Android phones (Nexus) or a modular architecture that allows manufacturers to "drop in" a custom UI and shell.

    What people should realize is that it isn't up to Google to force vanilla Google on manufacturers. Buyers drive the manufacturers by sales numbers. If enough Nexus phones are sold all manufacturers will offer a vanilla Android phone.

    • Chinpokomon

      For what it's worth, there is already a way to "drop in" a custom shell without tainting the underlying OS. If TouchWiz were simply a Launcher replacement, or if Sense didn't radically alter the dialer or provide alternative SMS/MMS applications, you could eat your cake and have it too. For better or for worse, the window dressing that device manufacturers create is much more invasive and requires more than a few patches to make it compatible with the next OS release.

      The problem is that the manufactures are trying to differentiate themselves from each other. A iPhone is always made by Apple and has little variation in hardware from model to model. WP7 looked the same from manufacturer to manufacturer. WM5/6 was customized by each manufacturer, in a less modular way than Android.

      If Google were to design Android releases so that there were minimum hardware requirements and specifications, and you forced manufacturers to maintain compatibility with the core Android functionality of the release a device is associated with, you'd have the Android ecosystem of today. Android provides maximum flexibility, which is what is required for handset manufactures to stay unique, and yet still provide a core minimum set of features to stay relevant.

      While I prefer the Vanilla Android OS experience, it is hardly required for maintaining a great user experience on other handsets. Unless your device features an NFC chip, beam direct isn't useful to you. Unless your device has a front-facing camera, facial unlock isn't useful to you. Largely, the only benefit to having an ICS compatible device will be an ability to run applications compiled to work with API 14. Even then, unless the application is using a new API, the minimum compatible API should still be something 2.x related.

      I'm looking forward to ICS as much as anyone, but ICS isn't designed for yesterday's devices. It really just spells out the next year or so. When you start to see the OS builds as hardware platform specifications with an OS to match those specifications, the actual OS "fragmentation" is less of an issue. Unless there is a security vulnerability, it largely won't matter to the consumer if their core OS is still on Froyo or even Eclair. Until 2.x really solidified most of Android's APIs, this mattered more.

      As developers start to write applications that can run either on tablet or phones, using API14, there may be a bit of a gap between the current generation of Android devices and the last generation. I think that will largely fall to developers writing tablet applications that scale down to phone dimensions, so for a little while there won't be too many applications that will be missed. In the meanwhile, we will continue to see applications written for the 2.x platform for some time to come, and it will be 6mo to a year before anyone running an older device will really start to feel abandoned. By then however, everyone is going to be looking forward to see what Jelly Bean (presumably) will bring us.

  • Aaron

    While the last year doesn't reflect this due to honey comb, Google has a 6 month release schedule for android so oems are playing catch up with the new nexus

  • ed

    i dont mind manufacturers releasing brand new devices when technology leaps even if they just released some sort of flagship device...if i read a report saying that quad core processors can now run on mobile devices a month after the galaxy nexus was launched then i would expect manufacturers would try to leap frog their current tech and release something insane..but pumping out phone after phone month after month is ridiculous...they should figure out what markets are out there and then use that to figure out how to release new phones

  • http://www.whatupgoingon.com doclloyd

    I think we've reached a point of way too many Android device releases. The largest concern I've had is device support. I bought the SE X10 when it had 1.6 on it in April 2010. I've been impressed they moved it to Gingerbread this past summer.

    Looking at the infographics above confirm my issue with hardware releases. A 6 month release cycle of new devices isn't too awful. However, IMO it should only be a few devices every 6 months, not 10 at a time. I've considered Samsung for my next phone, but I am absolutely concerned with their very slow software updates. Instead, they like to release new hardware with the new versions of Android. Companies across the board need to commit to their products (not just cell phones) for me to be interested in buying.

  • Seth

    Considering most US carriers work on the subsidized phone with a two year contract, it seems a bit unwise to have more so many high end devices in such a short period. Regular consumers probably just get whatever is available when their two years are up anyway. Looking at the charts above it looks more like an arms race between HTC and Samsung (with Motorola joining the fun on Verizon).

  • http://codytoombs.wordpress.com Cody

    I see a couple of bigger factors playing in here than what's been mentioned.

    First, the reason for the massive swath of updates comes from two particular angles. The leading factor is that companies like Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and nVidia keep coming out with new and slightly updated components. The problem is that if one manufacturer comes out with a device sporting the latest parts, the others are then forced to counter with another device to match or beat it. No company wants to come out with a flagship device and see the blogs refer to it as 'old news' 4 months later because another company released a marginally higher spec'ed device.

    I agree that the number of devices coming out right now is a little staggering. This worries me a little because it means that these companies will either be forced to spend a lot of money releasing updates to each and every device, or they will be forced to triage some of the devices, leaving them to rot with pretty badly outdated versions of the OS. The possibly good turn of events is that once the components stop advancing as quickly as they do and there's less side features in these devices that aren't considered standard (eg. Screen Technology, NFC, 4g bands, etc...), then it's likely that new devices will slow down a little. The point at which the "latest and greatest" isn't newsworthy is the point where we'll see attention turning towards the style/design of the phone to sell new models, and more attention to the custom software and updates will also be paid. Hopefully I'm right and hopefully the rapid release cycle doesn't have too much further to go.

    • L boogie

      This is true but it's amazing how fast the phones keep coming and things such as better battery management, improved camera technology, faster cpu/gpu etc in addition to faster software updates are not on the OEMs top priority though they are slowly gradually heading towards addressing said issues. However, this is why i indulge in rooting my devices to seek the pure Google experience that should have been on my phone since day one

  • L boogie

    Can't wait to see the comparison between At&t and Sprint devices, the present phone race ( and soon, tablets) is heating up considerably and though the consumer would benefit from this race, it would be really something spectacular if OEMS (as well as carriers) took the same approach in updating its software especially in the States. At the same token, it would also be nice if OEMS also released new devices unanimously all over rather than the release here today, 3-9 months later scenario with bandwidths, production/ cost factors etc taken into consideration

  • Raphael

    The real issues lies with the carriers as it is the manufacturers job to sell as many handsets as possible. We do not buy phones from htc, motorola or samsung, we buy from Sprint, AT&T, Verizon and TMO. It is the the carriers that are demanding all these phones and all the iterations that are flooding the market. I'm all for the latest technology but cases like LG saying it wont upgrade the LG2x to ICS is just unacceptable.
    At the end of the day the market will decide....

  • Scott

    OEMs will do whatever is most profitable. As long as people keep buying new devices, knowing support will end in 6 months, OEMs aren't going to change their support policies.

  • ocdtrekkie

    Did anyone consider how many manufacturers put out new models of PCs all the time with a billion different spec points? Nobody seems to take issue with that, and people tend to buy them less often then they buy phones.

    • Joe

      Yes, but when manufacturers put out PC's, its not up to them to update them. PC operating systems are designed to update themselves, not to have a manufacturer make an update for it. And when the PC finally starts to get really slow, consumers can either upgrade their system if they're a techie, or just buy a new one.

      • Mark

        Yeah, I think manufacturers are stuck in the old mentality of once they release a phone, they only have to do bare minimum absolutely-essential security updates. Old feature phones with custom OS's/Firmware were rarely updated, they didn't really need it and the manufacturer could focus on the next best phone. They're not used to having to deal with updates to 6 month old products when they're working on the next 3 or 4 new products. They need a department dedicated to releasing updates for older phones or they need to outsource it to a company, or team of hackers, who can do it. If they struck up a deal with Cyanogen and his team and ran through a 1 or 2 week 'testing' process of making sure CM7 ROM runs perfectly on their older hardware, then they could release it; translation, a slimmed down latest release of Android running on their older phones and happy customers.

  • Marco

    1) Agree that oem's are pushing things out way too fast, and 2) leaving their current customers hanging, as far as support/releases go.

    I've been burned twice now with phones that get less than 6 months of support, and they're the whole reason I'm going to spend a boatload of cash to pick up a Nexus.

    It's far from perfect, and is sure to have some bugs, but knowing that I'll get some kind of support/updates from Google makes it entirely worth it.

  • brgulker

    As a Thunderbolt owner, I say yes, development is being rushed. Apple is much better at releasing new tech when it's ready.

    • Someone

      Considering that they're orgasming at the amount of people who throw away their money on those devices and platform, it's not surprising.

      They can just sit around and do nothing. Hell, for their most recent headline feature...

      them: "HEY LOOK, AN APP THAT WE YANKED OFF THE STORE THAT'S BEEN AVAILABLE ON ALL DEVICES SINCE ABOUT 2 YEARS AGO!111!one"

      sheep: "OMGWTFBBQ, WE'VE NEVER SEEN SUCH AWESOMENESS DESPITE THE FACT WE COULD HAVE DOWNLOADED THIS, BUT I WILL NOW PAY $800 OR BREAK AND THEN SIGN UP AGAIN FOR A NEW CONTRACT FOR THIS ABSOLUTELY NEVER-BEFORE-DONE NEW FEATURE"

  • Mrwirez

    Just give me an unlocked bootloader, and I'll update it myself. Having said that... I hope my first Nexus device on VZW does not disappoint!

  • Tony

    Well the situation is this: You buy a brand new model, that costs around $500-600 and you assume that model would last in the top 5 of "hi-end" phones for a year. But, 4 months later the same company has already released several upgraded models, and announced at least five more to come. So, yes I do think companies release their models way too fast and the only ones losing in this, are the customers.

    Then again, if you do happen to be a person who buys a phone that you actually need instead of following the latest technology, you can only win. Nobody needs a quad-core phone with more than 1GB of RAM.

    • http://codytoombs.wordpress.com Cody

      "Nobody needs a quad-core phone with more than 1GB of RAM"

      That sounds about as stupid as the Bill Gates quote about nobody ever needing more than 640k of RAM (side node, gates never actually said that, it's just a myth). I realize that the scale and point are different, but the reason for somebody to buy something significantly more powerful than is needed today is so that when new software comes in a year (new OS versions, games, and possibly some apps), then at least the core internals can't be the limiting factors. The point of pushing those limits so high so quickly has more to do with future-proofing and ensuring that your phone is at least capable of running updates well in 18 months. What seems like overkill today can quickly become 'just enough' in a year.

      If that logic isn't enough for you...just remember that a lot of people are replacing 90% of their computer-related activity done on laptop/desktop with their phones. There are already video editors coming out on our phones, but they are incredibly simple. It may be very few people demanding the most out of our hardware for these types of activities, but the numbers are growing and people do want to do more.

  • Aeires

    Ultimately, the consumer will direct how things go by avoiding certain phones and flocking to others. That said, I still remember Sony taking a huge beating when they announced no updates on certain phones we all knew could run Gingerbread. The aftermath was Sony now gets the message and has promised updates. For all those other people who bought phones only to realize they were cut off, how many actually notified the OEM/carrier like the Sony crowd did?
    Another thing to consider, Google has stated future updates will not happen as frequently. They released a ton of changes to get the OS up to speed. Now that ICS is out there, less changes need to be made to the actual system on a regular basis. Their main focus is getting the ecosystem up to speed. This involves Google TV, Google Music, and like systems to give the end user a much more enjoyable environment to use. If the Android ecosystem was as feature rich as Apple's, updates wouldn't be so critical.

  • Rob

    The real question is: Why would smartphone manufacturers ever stop innovating?

    I say bring on the most advanced devices that the world has ever seen.

    Google needs to do a better job of encouraging people to customize their Androids.

    The average consumer running 2.2 needs to better understand that there are custom ROM's out there that they can upgrade to.