Technologizer

Android’s Fragmentation Mess–and How to Fix It

The next version of Google's mobile operating system looks impressive. But it may not be coming to an Android phone near you any time soon.

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On Friday, Verizon Wireless will begin selling the Droid RAZR, a new Motorola phone based on Google’s Android operating system. In multiple ways, it’s an impressive piece of work. The Kevlar-backed RAZR is the thinnest smartphone on the market–yes, thinner than the iPhone 4S–and among the most handsome. Thanks to its dual-core processor and LTE wireless connection, it’s also exceptionally snappy. Motorola has given the phone a clever feature that lets it automatically perform actions when specific criteria are met: It can play music whenever you plug in headphones, for instance, or shut off its Bluetooth to conserve battery juice when you’re at home.

But within hours of being unveiled on October 18th, the RAZR felt like yesterday’s news. That’s because Google and Samsung trumped it by announcing the Galaxy Nexus, a similar phone that’s the first to run Android 4.0, a promising upgrade also known as Ice Cream Sandwich. The RAZR will ship with Android 2.3 Gingerbread, a version that dates from last year.

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The RAZR won’t be stuck on Gingerbread forever. Motorola says that it’s committed to providing a software update in the first half of 2012, which sounds like it’s giving itself plenty of padding just in case. Even once it gets the upgrade, though, the RAZR will show telltale signs that it’s a pre-Ice Cream Sandwich device: It sports dedicated buttons for functions such as calling up the home screen, a feature that the new Android replaces with on-screen icons.

Bottom line: A major new Android handset that hasn’t hit the market yet is already a tad stale.

It’s not a new problem. I call it “Day-Old Bread Syndrome,” and I’ve been griping about it ever since early 2010. That’s when Verizon’s original Droid turned into an antique just weeks after its release, as Google updated Android from 2.0 (which that Droid ran) to 2.1 (which it didn’t get for months). That meant that the almost-new phone couldn’t run apps such as Google’s own Google Earth.

The Droids have plenty of company when it comes to Android-version woes. As blogger Michael DeGusta recently demonstrated in a remarkably revealing infographic, most Android phones quickly end up with outdated versions of the software, and get stuck there. It’s left the Android market deeply fragmented.

Even when Android handsets do get updates, it can take eons. Sprint’s Epic 4G, for instance, just got Gingerbread, almost a year after the software shipped. For Epic owners, Gingerbread finally showing up was less a happy event than a brusque reminder that they shouldn’t count on seeing Ice Cream Sandwich any time soon.

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