If you follow AOSP code drops long enough, you're eventually going to hear about JBQ (as well as a ton more acronyms). Jean-Baptiste Queru, Technical Lead of the Android Open-Source Project took to Google+ today to talk about Android update rollouts, as well as to praise one of the manufacturers that he sees as leading the pack in aiding the AOSP: Sony.
It took Sony only about 5 months to ship this [Android 4.0 for the Sony Tablet S] after I released the code in the Android Open Source Project at the very end of last year. This is actually a very reasonable time, since under the hood Ice Cream Sandwich is quite different from Honeycomb (and upgrades from Gingerbread are likely to take longer as those differences are huge).
Since Sony has been contributing a lot to the Android Open Source Project, they have fewer changes that they need to maintain on their own: those changes of theirs are already there when the source code is first released. That's probably one of the reasons why they could get done faster: the work they did preparing those contributions gave them a head start. I don't think that any other manufacturer has been contributing nearly as much as Sony did, so everyone else is now going to have to play catch-up.
This sheds some new light on how manufacturers carry out their updates and a little bit of why these updates take so long to begin with. It's obvious to anyone who doesn't own a Galaxy Nexus that the 4.0 rollout is taking longer than many updates in the past, but JBQ does let on that the changes are significant, so that may explain part of the hold up.
However, as he points out, Sony has been contributing to the AOSP in ways that help it provide faster updates to consumers. This has something Sony itself has pointed out in the past. As the company points out in a blog post on the subject back in December of last year:
In the Bring up phase, another task is to integrate a number of patches, to improve and adapt the Android legacy code according to our needs. These are customised patches important to the phone, such as improved error handling. To avoid fragmentation, many of these customised patches are actually contributed back to the Android Open Source Project, so that they are included in the default Android source code for the next software release. This work has made Sony Ericsson one of the main contributors to Android.
Sony has also, historically, been very involved with the open source community, specifically by partnering with the CM team to bring custom ROMs to Sony devices. From the official CyanogenMod blog back in September 2011:
We would like to stress that work on the 2011 lineup would not have been possible without the strong involvement of Sony Ericsson with the developer community. In addition to providing unlockable bootloaders to all new devices, they provided us both with devices and technical expertise that proved invaluable in making all this happen.
Sony may get the short end of the publicity stick, sometimes, but it's becoming clearer and clearer that Sony is approaching the Android community the right way: by engaging and helping the community, by unlocking the bootloaders on its devices and, most importantly, contributing code back to the project. The result is that Sony is getting updates to devices faster than any other manufacturer.
There are still other obstacles, of course. JBQ lamented that even on Google-engineered devices, updates can be affected by "delays introduced by operator approvals." As he sees it, though, the Galaxy Nexus being sold via the Play Store, is a step back in the right direction. We couldn't agree more.
And as for the other manufacturers: Samsung, HTC, Motorola? You guys should consider following in Sony's footsteps on this one. The community is your greatest asset, not your enemy.