Sep. 8, 2011 at 2:57 PM ET
This week marks the launch of Motorola's Droid Bionic, arguably the most chock-full-o'-tech Android handset to date. But despite its charms — I have one here, it's got some flaws, but it is mostly charming — it arrives surrounded by dark clouds of doubt.
There are increasing rumors of the next Android version, Ice Cream Sandwich, appearing this fall, as well as a dark horse Samsung-built "Nexus Prime" or "Droid Prime" phone possibly appearing on Verizon. "Is Bionic the best?" suddenly becomes "Is Bionic — and all the other Android handsets on the market — already obsolete?"
I love Android, and marvel at its evolution. In fact, as mysterious and stupidly named as it is, Ice Cream Sandwich seems to be the brightest dot on the timeline yet. The biggest problem to date has been the variety of processors, RAM and screen resolutions, overlaid with a variety of Android OS versions, creating what's referred to as "fragmentation."
The problem is reflected in app compatibility and appearance — there's no guarantee that the app you download will match the resolution of the screen on your phone. Developers are gung-ho for Android, but the quality control in the Android Market or Amazon Appstore is nowhere near what it is in Apple's App Store for iOS phones and tablets.
But what if the answer to Android users' and developers' prayers isn't available to any of the current phones? To put it more bluntly, what if every phone out, even the smokingest of smoking super phones, is obsolete the second that Ice Cream Sandwich appears, gazing out from the high-definition Super AMOLED screen of a Droid Prime?
We certainly hope that a dual-core powerhouse like the Droid Bionic can be upgraded to Ice Cream Sandwich, but the track record of carriers and phone makers does not engender optimism. A site called Android and Me did an exceptional job breaking down the frequency of Android upgrades by carrier and phone maker. Sprint has offered updates for five of its 13 currently sold Android phones — and they come in first place. Good job, Sprint! T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon are worse. As for hardware makers, measuring Samsung, HTC, Motorola, Sony Ericsson and LG, Android and Me determined they're all roughly in the same boat, having offered upgrades to about 40 percent of their phones.
Why do we have to deal with this kind of uncertainty? Apple is known for secrecy in future products, yet when it announced its next mobile OS, it was very clear about what phones would qualify for the existing upgrade. Admittedly, this is a far easier task for Apple — about 100 times easier by my math. But since Ice Cream Sandwich has been announced, why can't hardware makers insist on some kind of future-proof labeling? "Ice Cream Sandwich ready" or, codenamey jargon aside, just "Android upgrade capable"? Microsoft gets its partners to do it when a new Windows version comes out, and they have a bazillion partners too. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
The Apple reference isn't just there to get up the fur on the backs of the Android faithful. It's also to raise the question, earlier dismissed, that maybe Google's purchase of Motorola will create a new system, where there is accountability and upgradeability. I share the general belief that Google doesn't want to alienate partners like HTC and Samsung by getting too hands-on with a competing hardware maker, but at the very least, we should hope that the acquisition means Google has more influence over hardware and carrier upgrade constraints, while giving the company more insight into the importance of certain kinds of uniformity — of screen resolution, for instance — that help to improve the user and developer experience.
Is that too much to ask? Probably. Good luck, phone shoppers! Have fun upgrading your new Android phone!
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