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Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) thought it could make the mobile world a better place with the Android software. The recipe for revolution was simple: Provide a highly capable software platform in a very open development model, and then watch as handset designers and service providers jostle to squeeze every ounce of potential goodness out of this inviting solution.
Sounds great in theory, only it hasn't exactly worked out that way.
Back to reality
Instead, profit motives on several levels of the mobile food chain have created a messy political picture. Consumers should be enjoying the fruits of a rapid release schedule but are often stuck in a purgatory of old software -- created by the very openness that was meant to keep them all up to date.
You know how millions of users, both consumers and corporations, are still using Windows XP despite the best efforts from Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) to sell them Vista and then Windows 7 to replace that old, crusty operating system? Google is experiencing the same thing, only on a much quicker schedule.
Microsoft made a commodity out of the PC, so you'd get roughly the same Windows XP experience running on a Dell (Nasdaq: DELL ) laptop or a Lenovo desktop. But then Windows was just Windows -- why would you go through the hassle of upgrading when the old one worked well enough?
And now Google is stuck in a similar no-upgrade loop for similar reasons. The big losers are Android buyers.
Ruling with an iron fist -- or not
Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) keeps the vast majority of its mobile users on version 4 of its iOS software. The company works with a limited (albeit growing) number of networks and controls both hardware and software in-house. This gives Apple tremendous power to update your handset's software as it deems proper. Bug-fix releases and major new features get pushed out like clockwork.
By contrast, Google can only publish bleeding-edge software and then hope that the rest of the ecosystem works it all out. For example, Samsung reportedly has a 2.2 version of Android ready to go for the Galaxy S version it ships out to Deutsche Telekom subsidiary T-Mobile, dubbed the Samsung Vibrant. But the handset is stuck with version 2.1 and its much-inferior performance because Samsung supposedly feels that an upgrade would dilute the value of the upcoming Vibrant 4G+ model, which may run either 2.2 or 2.3 and will use that fact as a selling point over the older and probably cheaper Vibrant.
Google has given the handset makers and service providers enough rope to create a big, tangled mess. For the most part, even major version updates don't matter much and users should be able to get along just fine with older software. But it's borderline irresponsible to deny upgrades for reasons of politics or planned obsolescence when a simple software push breathes new life into an otherwise obsolete model. That's the case with Android 2.2, and Google can't do a darn thing to make its partners run those updates.
The state of Android affairs
Most Android devices run version 2.2 now, which is great, but about 48% are still stuck with highly inferior versions, according to the latest data from popular contacts-sharing application Bump. For what it's worth, most handsets are perfectly capable of running 2.2, as my downright Methuselahan myTouch 3G proved, by getting a new lease on life with that update.
Of course, 2.2 is old news by now, as Froyo got a Gingerbread sibling last month. Some 0.4% of all handsets are running it now. If this were an Apple update, you'd already see an overwhelming majority using the latest and greatest, giving app developers and gadget consumers less of a moving target.
So Google's grand experiment is backfiring in some spectacular ways. That doesn't stop Android phones from selling like hotcakes, though related issues have put a damper on tablet sales. You buy an iPad, you know exactly what you get -- warts and all.
But certain killer apps just aren't available on early Android tablets. Steve Jobs likes to use Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX ) streaming as a selling point for most of his mobile devices, but Android doesn't have a unified copy-protection model, so Netflix simply can't publish a streaming solution that covers 'em all. That's a lost marketing opportunity. It's also just one example from a growing pile.
You can't always get what you want
Google probably figured that upgrades would work themselves through the system quickly because of the implicit user benefits. That's how the company runs internally, after all -- update early and often and then collect the increased traffic and advertising revenue that follows from an improved end-user experience. But the many layers of conflicting motivations between Google and you have led that strategy astray.
This complexity undermines the Android platform as a whole. You can buy any recent-model iPhone knowing you'll be able to play Angry Birds on it. But which Android handsets can or can't deliver a smooth pig-killing experience? It was impossible to play the game on my phone under Android 1.6, but it works when running 2.2. Confusion is the sworn enemy of sales.
How much greater could the Android success story have been with a better version-management strategy? Discuss in the comments section below.
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