Earlier today, when I read comments from Motorola executive Christy Wyatt over on PCMag explaining that lagging software updates could be blamed in large part on hardware variation, my first response was "really?" Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. Motorola has iterated so much hardware in the last year that it has actually promised to cut down on the number of versions of Android handsets it will make.

Specifically, Wyatt made a point of the obvious fact that when Google releases the source code for Android, the only devices it will readily compile on fall into the "Nexus" category. For Ice Cream Sandwich, that included the Nexus S, Galaxy Nexus, and (with a few tweaks) the Motorola XOOM. All of those devices (excepting the Verizon version of the XOOM) now have Android 4.0.

Here's Wyatt's actual statement on the issue:

When Google does a release of the software ... they do a version of the software for whatever phone they just shipped," she said. "The rest of the ecosystem doesn't see it until you see it. Hardware is by far the long pole in the tent, with multiple chipsets and multiple radio bands for multiple countries. It's a big machine to churn.

While Motorola has obviously learned to keep hardware relatively similar with its newest devices (the BIONIC, RAZR, and DROID 4 all feature the same TI OMAP4430 chipset), blaming handset variation seems like a bit of a copout. Whose fault is it that Motorola's devices (other than the 3 mentioned) have so many different hardware configurations aside from radio chips? I'm going to go out on a limb here and say "Motorola's." I think that's certainly part of the problem, but I also don't think it's the primary reason for the sluggishness or total lack of software updates for some devices - especially in the US market.

Motorola has at least 3 radio configurations to maintain in the US, considering the company has almost no presence on T-Mobile. Sprint and Verizon share CDMA bands, but Verizon has its own LTE, and AT&T works on GSM frequencies used around the world, though it too has its own LTE network. This means that individual software updates need to be configured for each major carrier here in the good 'ol US of A - and it's moronic.

But it doesn't stop there. Prepaid and regional carriers are split into camps, as well - Boost and Virgin both operate on CDMA (ala Sprint), while most other regionals use standard world GSM frequencies. Now, you may say that radio configurations are hardware differences, and I agree - they are. But Wyatt blames the hardware itself, rather than those demanding it.

As a company relying on huge purchasing agreements with major carriers, Motorola can't afford to blame them for much of anything except the black numbers on its balance sheet. But Wyatt does give us a hint of being upset with the carriers in a later quote:

I would have to know that every single operator I have is going to want to upgrade every single product, and sometimes they'll want to control the timing ... it's just not easy to make that blanket statement.

Translation: carriers are a nightmare to deal with, and are about as predictable as a group of angry badgers. Now, it's understandable why carriers are fussy about these things, reason number one being their sales figures. If Phone X gets an update to the newest version of Android right before Phone Y comes out, and but for X's update Phone Y would be the only device on the carrier with the newest version of the OS, the carrier wants to avoid cannibalizing sales. In all likelihood, the older phone will be cheaper (but cost the manufacturer about the same to buy, meaning an even bigger loss on the sale), and the carrier will be relying on near-term buzz to sell the new device en masse.

But most of the reason the updates will take so long to make it to the carrier's quality assurance department is that the manufacturer wants to present the update at roughly the same time in most markets (and carriers). In Europe, this is much less of an issue - almost every carrier in existence in the EU utilizes the standard GSM bands, as do most wireless providers around the world, making developing updates for these markets much easier.

In the United States, we have a wireless market that actively discourages users from switching carriers because their handset will in all likelihood only work on one of the "big four." There are ways to mitigate this, but there's really only one that can provide long-term relief: multi-carrier compatibility. As the major carriers move towards LTE, this is becoming something we can at least fathom having in the next decade.

While phones like the GSM Galaxy Nexus show that the "carrier gap" can be bridged by hardware to some degree (it works on both AT&T and T-Mobile's 3G HSPA+ networks), the fact that the device isn't available subsidized here in the US makes it clear what interest are at play.

If we continue allowing carriers to gate themselves off into "walled gardens" of spectrum, it seems the problem of slow software updates is something we'll always be stuck with here in the US. Let's hope that's not the case.

So, moral of the story? If you want to blame anyone for slow software updates, blame your carrier - they're perpetuating a system of product tying that makes less sense each and every day.


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.

  • Nastybutler

    Sorry if this duplicates the question I thought I just submitted, but it's not showing up for me.

    How is it Apple can make a "world" phone that works across multiple carriers and bands, but Motorola, HTC an Samsung can't?

    • topper

      They dont. They have CDMA and GSM versions just like everyone else.

    • Magui43212

      Motorola photon is a world phone.

    • cosmic

      Truth be told, they don't. A Sprint iphone won't work on Verizon and a Verizon iphone won't work on Sprint. Then on the GSM side of things an AT&T phone won't work on Tmobile(properly at least).

      • Ravi Shah

        the iphone 4s is cdma and gsm. depending on what carrier you buy it from it has gsm or cdma bands disabled.

  • bedwa

    Amen sir! I may be using a Thrill, but my next will a euro Tab 7.7. Unbranded here I come!

  • Danny

    I've been saying this for at least six months. The US carriers run on exclusivity and monopolisation of frequencies/hardware. It's insane. And what's sad is everybody bitches about Verizon but then happily gives all their money for their overpriced plan - because they literally have no other choice.

    It's one thing I love about Europe. While a lot of people complain about, for example, Europe requesting a halt on Google's privacy policy change for review, it's to prevent *exactly* the situation you guys have with your carriers. And I'm incredibly thankful for it.

    I do imagine that a lot of European carriers look at the US carriers and say "Man, I wish I could get away with that".

    • scott

      Be that as it may, all I have to do is compare plans from Europe and the US, and I'll happily keep giving my money to Verizon.

  • aaron ferguson

    XDA doesn't seem to have an issue. I think carriers are lazy. The days of dumb phones are gone.

  • HRJoey

    One of the reasons why I wanted AT&T to buy out T-Mobile.

  • Stocklone

    I want the government to take control of the hardware and convert to GSM. Our tax dollars can be used to maintain and upgrade. Like our road systems. The big four can rent from the government and work on selling us service, benefits and good prices instead of exclusive hardware. Buy a phone, pick your carrier.

    • scott

      While I'm not one of those who thinks everything government does is bad, in this case, I can't think of anything good coming out of what you suggested. The LAST thing we need is DC having a hand in hardware.

  • L boogie

    reasons such as this can lead to the conclusion that Google should enforce timely updates of the Android ecosystem without jeopardizing its open source commitment. But with u.s carriers concerned about the bottom dollar (business as usual, right?), scheduled updates would always be secondary unless multi-carrier compatibility is utilized by the big four as David stated

  • Dirt Burrito

    Carriers want to sell new phones not update them.

  • john wilkinson

    Though you might not think it this does effect people outside the US as most handset makers want the US to get the updates first (as it's the biggest market) and only then will they start working on the updates for the rest of the world...

    I know it's sad to say but it's the price we pay for having and open system rather than the Apple "walled garden" model...

    We can't always have our cakes and eat them...

  • androidkin

    "But most of the reason the updates will take so long to make it to the carrier's quality assurance department is that the manufacturer wants to present the update at roughly the same time in most markets (and carriers)."

    Quality Assurance??? Where??? Most of Verizon phone updates are filled with bugs.

  • Mike C

    More corporate lies from Motorola. Take the Xoom: Google releases the software for Android 3.2 in July 2011 and rolls it out to US Xooms at that time. From then on it takes Motorola 5 months to make European software releases.

    The European WIFI Xoom has the same HW as the US version, so there really is no excuse for the delay. And in reality all the HW specific stuff for the 3G versions were implemented with the release of Android 3.0.

    More agile companies like ASUS is able to roll out these firmware releases in less than half the time. Why? And why does Motorola think that we will care about their inclusion of Motoprint and some Citrix software in the firmware? If I want software, I can get it from Android Market!

    With these lies and Motorola's non existing international customer service, non-US customers should stay clear of Motorolas Android products.

  • Mooki

    While a good portion of the blame is with Motorola for their slowness a massive proportion of it lies, as you say, with the carriers who actively and aggressively work against kind of cooperation with their competitors. After all working with them (and making compatible handsets) means people might be able to move away to another supplier, and that can never be a good thing for your profit margin.

    I live outside of the "Land of the Free" where we actually promote cooperation but Motorola still seem to have a hard time releasing updated software for devices that already have updates in the US, so I don't think you can lay all the blame on US carriers.

    • blunden

      I think Motorola is a special case in this regard. They have a hard time breaking even so they probably think they can't afford to devote as many developers to updating of old phones as other companies can as they think it will adversely affect their sales of new devices. What they don't consider though is that being slow with updates again and again makes people less and less likely to buy Motorola phones as those phones becomes a worse "investment". Why would someone buy a phone from Motorola when they can buy a very similar phone from another manufacturer that offers updates months earlier?