Why It’s Hard To Get Excited About A New Version of Android
Amid the proceedings of last week’s Google I/O conference, the latest version of Android was announced, called Android M. You can find out more about Android M here and from Google here. It includes some nice updates, the best of which is Now On Tap; contextual Google Now functionality. Watching the demos and thinking about the possibilities for mobile UX can start to get you excited. The next question that logically follows in that thought process though is a huge problem for Google; When can I get it? In reality, the answer to that question is closer to the “Who Knows!?” end of the spectrum than “Q3 2015”.
The Triskelion of Android Distribution
Android M may be released in Q3, but getting it is a totally different matter. Most of us with Android phones are at the mercy of what I like to call The Triskelion of Android Distribution. A triskelion is a celtic symbol of three interlocking spirals extending outwards from a center focal point. In the world of Android, Google is at the center of the triskelion and the three spiral arms represent stock android, mobile carriers and device manufacturers. The interconnected nature of each element means only one thing for the end user; delays.
Stock Android, delivered on devices such as Nexus smartphones are the closest to whatever vision Google has for Android at any one time. Owners of these phones are lucky enough to get the latest and greatest versions of Android about a month after release. The device offerings here though are not very diverse and the quality is very much dependent to the manufacturers particular strategy for each model. For example, while Google aimed the Nexus 5 at the affordable but powerful segment of the device market, the Nexus 6 is aimed at the high-end and expensive segment. When Google bought Motorola, it was heralded as the end to update delays, with Motorola phones being promised Android updates direct from Google. This however has not materialised. My Motorola G 4G is still waiting for its Lollipop update, 20 months after Lollipop debuted on the Nexus 5 in Oct 2013.
For each update to Android, mobile carriers need to test and certify that version with all the devices they stock and sell to their customers, which takes a long time. Given that the driving factor for these companies is signing new or renewed contracts, it’s hard to think that they have much motivation to ensure backwards compatibility outside of making sure the latest version works on whatever flagship handsets they are pushing at the moment.
In an effort to differentiate themselves from the competition, many device manufacturers skin Android with their own UI layer, like Samsung and HTC. This adds another layer of complexity and delay with every new Android release. One which I think only makes the most business sense to put effort into when it is being coupled with the release of a new handset. Again this adds further delays.
This complicated and intertwining distribution pipeline is probably a symptom of the scattergun customer acquisition strategy Google has employed over the years to gain market share. They put Android out everywhere and made whatever deals with manufacturers that were needed to get Android phones into the hands of the people. It wasn’t that long ago that the best Android phones on offer were low power cheaper “starter” smartphones, long before the days of iPhone 6 Vs Galaxy S6 Vs Nexus 6 reviews. This strategy worked and whatever indicators you look at, most show Android eating Apple’s lunch when it comes to market share. On the other side of the coin however, it has led to the famous Android fragmentation problem.
In reality, what these delays mean for most of us is compromised quality of our smartphones. We are stuck with whatever version of Android is on our smartphones when we get them, unless we want to upgrade every 6 to 12 months or root our phones with Cyanogenmod. Contrast this to iPhone owners, who can update their iOS as soon as it is released and take advantage of whatever new features it offers. Sometimes I can’t help but think that Google is suffering from ivory tower syndrome when it comes to Android updates. For Googlers, perhaps when they get their free smartphone upgrade of stock Android, they set their minds on what features to include in the next round and they somewhat forget about all of us navigating The Triskelion of Android Distribution, waiting over a year for the last version. This is why it is hard to get excited about a new version on Android :-(
I’m a web consultant, contract web developer and technical project manager originally from Cork and now based in Swansea, South Wales. A lot of my work is done with clients in Ireland & the UK, where I offer strategy, planning and technical delivery services. I also offer freelance CTO services to companies in need of technical bootstrapping or reinvention. If you think I can help you in your business, check out my details on http://darylfeehely.com.