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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Gingerbread Problem

Android is becoming an unstoppable force in mobile phones all over the world. Over 1.3 million devices are being activated on a daily basis and shows no signs of slowing down.

But what if I told you that over 50% of active devices are running a version of the Android OS that is 2 years old? Considered ancient by technology standards.

That 50% of devices are two major software revisions behind and one behind that completely changes that way we view Android?

What if I told you that you can get a new iPhone (4S or 5) but it won't come with Siri, a better camera app, an enhanced notification center, and better performance?

This is a problem that new Android users are facing today if they don't look into what they are buying. While Gingerbread isn't as prevalent in phones in stores today, being stuck on a phone that won't be upgraded will result in the same problem .

But let's take a step back and see how and why this happened.

Android was a relative newcomer that was pretty much in beta up until Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich in late 2011. The iPhone took the country by storm in 2007 and changed the way we view cell phones. At the same time, Google was planning their own Android project as a free and open source alternative to Apple's closed iOS. Many users liked the openness and freedom that Android provided and it created some much needed competition in the Smartphone category.  But that meant that Android was behind. Way behind. So behind that there was 4 revisions to the Android OS from its debut in September 2008 to October 2009. By comparison, Apple only updates its iOS once a year.

This meant that Android was relatively new and was constantly changing. Consumers weren't ready to jump into an unproven system when Apple was quickly becoming the new standard. The T-Mobile G1 was a good start but it specs were very lacking. It wasn't until Motorola and Verizon debuted the Motorola Droid to the masses with a very well done iDon't viral campaign that Android was pushed to the forefront of technology. Now the question was whether to get a iPhone, Blackberry(at the time), or a Droid. This new brand pushed Android forward to a point where it wasn't just a beta project in development but a viable alternative.

At this point, Android is starting to gain momentum and, as we know now, Android has become an unstoppable juggernaut. Gingerbread 2.3 was released in December of 2010, 6 months after the release of a new and soon to be the biggest brand in Android history: The Samsung Galaxy S Series. The series was a great start and boost for Android that many people were already looking forward to the successor. That successor came in October of 2011 as the Samsung Galaxy SII launching with Gingerbread 2.3.6. Both of these phones are responsible for selling over 30 million devices and creating a glut of devices on Gingerbread. The peak of Android was here. And at the top of the peak, was a Gingerbread cookie.

Devices were selling left and right and Google knew that the future of Android was bright. But they weren't content. iOS still showed that Android still had a long way to go in terms of UI, smoothness, and stability. Google released Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich in November of 2011, considered the biggest update in Android history, one month after the release of the Galaxy SII. While each Android version was a revision based on a previous version, Android 4.0 changed everything you knew about Android. It improved on just about everything that Android had to offer. The list of changes and updates was staggering. The biggest change was to how everything looked. The new Holo theme that covered everything from the home screen, to apps, to settings gave Android a new life and pushed the operating system to new heights.

The biggest and best update Android ever had was also the one that would create the Gingerbread Problem.

Android 4.0 changed a lot of things in the Android OS. Some of those things were in the structure of the OS, how everything connected to each other, and what was needed to run the OS. Ice Cream Sandwich was considerably different from Gingerbread and that meant that some phones wouldn't be able to support the new update. Whether it was due to low specifications, technical difficulties, or considerable work involved in the update process, it soon became clear that certain phones would be stuck on Gingerbread for the foreseeable future.

It didn't help that at this point Over The Air updates were slowing down and becoming very frustrating. Consumers who bought a new phone with a older version were left asking questions on when their phone will be updated. While Apple updated the iPhone through iTunes as it was their only device, Google had now left that up to the manufacturers and carriers due to the sheer number of devices being released. While Google focused on building and releasing the Android source code, it was up to the manufacturers to determine which devices was worth the time and effort to release an OTA.

Jumping ahead (and back) for a moment, Google soon realized that they needed to show off what Android was capable of and create a proper developer phone. On January 5, 2010, in a collaboration with HTC, Google released the Google Nexus One. The Nexus One was packed with high end specs, Stock Android, and provided developers with a standard to develop apps. The Nexus program also promised immediate and direct updates from Google as soon as possible. The program continued with the Samsung Nexus S and the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. It was at this point that Google realized how carriers can have a negative effect on Android updates. The Nexus S 4G showed that variants on different carriers would take longer to update due to the differences from the GSM version and the carrier's duty to rollout the update. The Verizon version of the Galaxy Nexus took even longer to release an update which frustrated many users.

This combination of factors leads into the Gingerbread problem affecting Android today. Lower end devices on Gingerbread aren't able to receive 4.0 due to the inability to run the version properly. Manufacturers are content with releasing a new phone on a higher version than updating a phone that didn't sell well. The time and effort needed is just not profitable. Carriers must also test and approve the update which results in longer wait times.

Google completely circumvented these problems with the release of the Nexus 4. As an unlocked GSM phone, Google has complete control of the updates for it. There is only one version of the phone available through Google's site and T-Mobile. T-Mobile has always supported the Android OS from the start and has allowed Google to completely support the phone under their carrier.

How can you avoid buying a phone that may be stuck on a older version? The answer is you get what you pay for. Avoid smaller brands and lower end phones. You want your phone to last you awhile until your next purchase. If you are on a contract that may mean 2 years from now. If you can't afford one, get the phone with the highest version of Android as it might be stuck on that version for a while. Buy the flagship phone. Even though everyone will mostly have the same phone, these will sell well and the manufacturer will support it to please its massive audience.

The following is a list of great phones just released on each carrier that will be heavily supported by the manufacturer and carrier.

AT&T                                                 Verizon                                           Sprint
HTC One X and X+                            Motorola Razr HD & Maxx            HTC EVO 4G LTE
Galaxy SIII                                          Galaxy SIII                                     Galaxy SIII
Galaxy Note II                                     HTC Droid DNA                           Galaxy Note II
Atrix HD or Optimus G                        Galaxy Note II                                LG Optimus G

Nexus 4
Galaxy SIII
Galaxy Note II

While there is a chance that the manufacturer will update or support other phones, I believe this list is a good start for those concerned about support. The Nexus 4 is also a great Nexus device if you are on AT&T or T-Mobile. It already received two updates since its release in November as it is fully supported by Google.

Samsung has learned that the iPhone model of releasing one version of a phone can work to great success. With its launch on all 4 carriers simultaneously, the GSIII has been a huge success. Samsung then released the Note II creating another opportunity for a brand but not taking anything away from the GSIII. HTC has followed a similar route released the One X on AT&T and Sprint (as the EVO 4G LTE), the HTC One S on T-Mobile and finally the HTC Droid DNA on Verizon. Not only is this route easier to support but it gives consumers something to look forward to every year rather than a continuous barrage of Android devices, each better than the last, and not knowing which to settle on.

The Gingerbread problem will eventually fade but it's shame that over 50% of users won't be able to experience the best that Android has to offer. Google Now, Photosphere, new UI, and a better overall experience is unavailable to those users. They will have to wait for an upgrade that will possibly never come or will have to wait for their upgrade or purchase a phone outright.

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