Android OS Updates: Who’s the Decider?

Samsung has rolled out the first official Android 4.1 Jelly Bean updates for its Galaxy S III smartphone.

Customers in Poland are reportedly getting the update first. Samsung will apparently roll out the update to customers in other countries later this month.

A slew of Android devices that are ready for Jelly Bean are being released before the end of the year.

However, rolling out an update to Android isn’t a smooth process because “it’s business and politics and everyone has a certain power play,” Michael Morgan, a senior analyst at ABI Research, told LinuxInsider.

The Long, Convoluted Route to Android Updates

The problem is that three parties, all with different agendas, are involved when an update to Android is planned — Google, which writes the software, handset manufacturers whose devices will run the software, and the carriers.

“All three parties have to agree,” Carl Howe, a vice president of research at the Yankee Group, told LinuxInsider. “Three companies can rarely decide when to schedule a joint press release, so it’s not surprising they’d struggle to coordinate software updates.”

The economic incentives for hardware makers and carriers are to sell new phones rather than update older ones, so “the consumer gets left with obsolete software,” Howe continued.

Samsung “is going to politely decline to comment to your story,” company spokesperson Makenzie Blythe told LinuxInsider.

It’s the Technology

Google can’t just create a new version of Android, offer it to its hardware partners and be sure they’ll plunk it into their devices. In fact, Google can’t even begin working on a new OS without holding discussions with hardware partners.

Makers of mobile devices running Android all customize the OS with their own user interfaces. “Google has to make sure what’s going into the new OS isn’t going to break or mess up the hardware makers’ customization,” ABI’s Morgan said.

Google also has to notify its partners in advance so they can make sure their devices can indeed be updated to the latest version of the OS. “There’s no doubt the Android ecosystem has struggled with updates, partly due to Google’s pushing them out faster than product update cycles,” Morgan remarked.

The carriers also have to be consulted. Google “have to make sure the new OS doesn’t break any networks,” Morgan stated. “It could be something as simple as the update creating extra messaging loads and the carriers not being comfortable with that, to things I haven’t even heard of.”

Who’s Got The Power?

As the creator of the Android OS, Google has some leverage over smartphone manufacturers.

“OEMs have the least amount of power in this scenario,” ABI’s Morgan said. “They need the carriers to sell their devices, and the Google OHA [Open Handset Alliance] agreement to make sure they have access to technology and support.”

In fact, Google reportedly used the terms of the OHA agreement to prevent Acer from launching a smartphone in China that ran Alibaba’s Aliyun Linux-based operating system.

The operators often slow things down to the point where emotions get quite heated. For example, Google engineer Jean-Baptiste Queru in April blasted carriers over delays in approving the release of the Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade to owners of mobile devices.

Operators do have considerable clout. For example, Verizon last year refused to include the Google Wallet mobile payment feature in its Samsung Galaxy Nexus smartphone. That was to be expected, as the carrier was working on the rival ISIS mobile payments system jointly with AT&T and T-Mobile.

While Verizon nixed Google Wallet for competitive reasons, carriers often move cautiously on approving updates to Android for other reasons.

“Operators will get a lot of customer service support calls if things don’t go right,” ABI’s Morgan pointed out. “That’s a cost. Things can go wrong quickly.”

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