Google Android 4.0 'Ice Cream Sandwich' Still Faces Sticky Upgrade Problem

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2011-10-19

Google Android 4.0 'Ice Cream Sandwich' Still Faces Sticky Upgrade Problem

Google announced its latest version of the Android mobile operating system in Hong Kong this week, and in the process might have left more questions than answers. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which runs the Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" operating system, will have new features such as the ability to unlock itself by looking at its owner, take panoramic photos and provide Google+ access in the same way as Gmail is built into current Android devices.

But perhaps more important is that this new OS is designed to bring the two disparate segments of the Android universe into one platform. Currently, phones run Android 2.x as do some tablets. Other tablets run Android 3.x (Honeycomb). Ice Cream Sandwich is aimed at supporting both types of devices.

Right now, ICS only runs on the Galaxy Nexus, but Motorola reports that its just-released Droid RAZR will get an upgrade to Android 4 in a month or two. Or maybe longer. With Android updates, nothing is ever certain until it happens. Sometimes an update clearly will never happen. Honeycomb, for example, will never come to phones because it's designed for tablets.

There's been some criticism of the Nexus because of its slower-than-expected processor speeds and its lower-than-expected camera resolution. This criticism is mostly misplaced. A high-resolution camera that sits behind an optical system that's limited in its capability mostly results in large files that show poor images. Poor image software will make this worse, but even if the image-processing software is perfect, the limitations of lenses in a phone produce limits in image quality. Perhaps Samsung is simply recognizing this limitation.

Some of the new Android 4 features, such as facial recognition, are also of limited usefulness. Despite what you might see on television, really accurate, really fast, facial recognition is a very tough job. I suspect that this is one of those cool features that people mostly won't use because it mostly won't work. While it's easier to create software that can recognize one, and only one, face, it's still unreliable as Google representatives demonstrated during their demo when this feature didn't work.

In reality, the best thing about ICS is that it's supposed to be a unified platform. Device manufacturers and carriers should only have to worry about one software platform that runs on all their devices. This would be nice if it reflected reality.

But the reality is that phone makers and wireless carriers have to support a universe of Android devices ranging from Android 1.x and 2.x on smartphones, Android 2.x on smartphones and some tablets, and Android 3.x on tablets.

Google Must Sweeten Ice Cream Sandwich With Stellar Apps

Most of these devices will never see an upgrade to Android 4. This means that device makers and carriers will have to either decide to declare an end-of-life support policy for devices as they age, or they will have to suffer supporting a vast array of Android devices for a long, unpleasant future.

Unfortunately, upgrades for Android devices have been somewhat of a mixed bag. While there have been a lot of important upgrades along the way, major upgrades for Android have come at a glacial pace. One reason for this is that Android devices run on so many different hardware platforms and each one has to have its own upgrade. Another reason is that carriers have to approve each upgrade, and this can take awhile and may never happen.

What this means is that Android 4 may become a unified mobile OS for future devices, but it's unlikely to do much for devices that are actually in the field already. In the immediate future, this will make for a more complex environment for those who need to support these devices. In the long run, it will make devices on older versions of Android less desirable, and it will give users a reason to upgrade to a new device. Device makers and carriers may find that the sale of new devices offsets the cost of supporting older devices.

What will probably matter most is whether ICS offers users more bang for the buck than previous versions of Android. While the cool new features such as facial recognition (if it works) and voice typing (assuming that works) will be nice, what will matter more are things like ease of use, value for the dollar and software support. A bright shiny new operating system with no applications won't spur sales.

The lack of stellar applications is part of why Honeycomb devices are selling at a less-than-spectacular rate. While there are lots of nice applications out there for Android devices, there aren't that many designed specifically for Honeycomb and many of the Android applications designed for older platforms really don't work as well as they should on tablets.

The existence of a single application platform for both tablets and phones should help spur development for both types of devices, assuming they support both types of devices equally well. Users still don't like seeing a tiny application in the middle of their tablet's screen, nor is anyone impressed by a stretched-out image of something designed for a phone. If Google can solve that problem by creating a stable unified market for applications, then Ice Cream Sandwich will provide users with something they already need. That should help make it a success.


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