Let Me Have My Android Updates!

I really like Android, the mobile operating system developed by Google, its many partners in the Open Handset Alliance, and the open source community. It lacks the user-interface polish of the largely-defunct Hewlett-Packard (HP) WebOS, which was and remains the most user-friendly mobile operating system ever produced to-date. But Android is steadily improving in this area, and I have managed to make myself a comfortable home there—along with many other WebOS devotees who were all-but forced to abandon the platform thanks to HP’s mismanagement.

Today, I have two Android devices: the Motorola Droid 2 Global (Verizon) smartphone, and the Motorola Xoom FE tablet. They are good devices and I have few complaints. But the one issue I keep running across is the perennial failure of the manufacturers and wireless carriers to keep the Android OS up-to-date.

‘Power users’ like myself, forged in the crucible of the desktop computer, are accustomed to having new operating systems available to us shortly after their release. We install each new version of Windows, Mac OS, and/or our chosen Linux distribution on our PC’s as soon as they become available. We are the early adopters. We love getting our hands on the latest and the greatest, even if it still has some kinks that need to be worked out. We’re willing to accept some risk, complication, and annoyance in return for a seat at the cutting edge of computing. And for the entire history of general-purpose computing, there’s been nobody standing in the way of the ‘power user’ (at least when it comes to their own machines). If Microsoft released a new version of Windows, but HP or Dell or Sony somehow blocked it from being installed on the machines they had manufactured, we would be incensed! How dare they tell us what we can and can’t install on our machines?

But in the mobile device universe of smartphones and tablets, the manufacturers exert a kind of control that has always been denied them in the realm of desktops and laptops. I cannot just take the newest version of Android from Google and install it on my device. The manufacturer, more often than not, prevents me from doing so through various technical means—locked and encrypted boot-loaders, unique and unnecessary driver requirements, and more. You don’t get the new version of Android until the manufacturer of the device decides to let you have it, if they ever decide to at all. When it comes to smartphones sold through a wireless carrier like Verizon or AT&T, it gets even worse. The manufacturer can’t even roll out an update they’ve made until the carrier approves it for release, which is a notoriously slow approval process.

Last week, I received a software update for my Motorola Droid 2 Global smartphone. I was upgraded from Android 2.3.3 to Android 2.3.4—a version first released by Google on April 28, 2011. It took over ten months for Motorola and Verizon to develop, approve, and roll out a breathtakingly minor release. In the mean time, Google has released an additional three minor updates in the 2.3 series bringing the ‘current’ version to 2.3.7. In addition, Google has released Android 4—also known as ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’—which is technically capable of running on any Android 2.3 series device. None of these updates have yet been made available to Droid 2 Global users. It is almost certain we will ever see the Android 4 upgrade, and it is unclear whether we can expect any more badly-outdated 2.3 series releases to come our way.

My Motorola Xoom FE tablet is running Android 3.1. The Android 3 series made it up to 3.2.6 before being supplanted by the aforementioned Android 4, and Motorola has steadfastly refused to roll out any of these updates. We have been promised that we will get Android 4 in the second quarter of this year; even if they do so on April 1, they will be releasing an OS to us that has been available from Google for nearly six months. Imagine if you had a six-month waiting period before you were permitted by your PC’s manufacturer to install a new version of Windows!

I have many criticisms of Apple’s iOS mobile operating system, but I’ll give them this kudo without reservation: they roll out their OS updates promptly to nearly all of their customers. Part of this is because they have the advantage of being both the hardware and software manufacturer. As such, I cut the Android phone manufacturers a bit more slack. I would accept a 60-day wait for OS updates without question. Anything more than that, however, is inexcusable. Part of manufacturing an Android phone is that you need to commit to keeping the Android OS fully-patched and up-to-date—for both security and customer service reasons.

Apple has also been very successful at taking the wireless carriers out of the equation. Verizon and AT&T don’t hold up iOS updates for months upon months in some unnecessary ‘review’ process. This is good for their consumers. Why can’t they allow the Android manufacturers the same courtesy? Why can’t the carriers just let the manufacturers roll out software updates for the devices they built without undue interference?

And if the manufacturers and carriers aren’t willing to do their jobs properly and keep our devices up to date, they could at least get out of our way. There is an excellent after-market Android firmware installation called CyanogenMod which is available for many Android devices, but its developers are constantly stymied by the aforementioned encrypted boot-loaders and other manufacturer and carrier interference. I really just wish these companies would stop actively interfering with the hacker and enthusiast communities. Most users aren’t power users and will just stick to the ‘official’ channels . . . but that’s no reason not to allow those of us who want the most from our devices, including a current operating system, to get it through unofficial channels.

And let us not forget, in the end these are our devices. Once I buy a smartphone or tablet, it no longer belongs to Verizon or Motorola or AT&T or Apple. No, it belongs to me. It is mine to do with as I please. So get out of my way, and let me have the newest OS if I want it!

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.