Will the Android Upgrade Mess Ever Get Fixed?

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Over at CNET, Casey Newton and Roger Cheng have a good story on Google’s Motorola division and its decision to renege on its pledge to update some 2011 phones from Android 2.3 Gingerbread to 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.

Every few months, it seems, we hear a new version of an old story: the maker of an expensive smartphone announces it won’t be upgraded to the latest version of Android, and consumers cry foul.

But this one is different. First, Motorola told customers they would upgrade the phones for 18 months after they came out, a statement that drove sales of the devices. Second, Google owns both Android and Motorola, making it all the more puzzling why the business units didn’t work together to make an upgrade happen.

Finally, there are signs that for some Android devotees, Motorola’s abandonment of its year-old phones is the last straw.

To me, the interesting part of this isn’t Motorola breaking its promise — although I’d be plenty steamed if I’d bought a phone based on it — but the obvious technical difficulty of updating a phone that uses one version of Android to a new version. If it were easy, we wouldn’t have the fragmentation mess.

Google has gone from saying that upgrades didn’t matter much to encouraging phone makers to guarantee them to helping manufacturers to get to work on updates more quickly. But for now, when you buy an Android phone, you shouldn’t assume anything at all about when, or if, you’ll get an upgrade. And most of the time, most new phones aren’t running the latest version of the software. (At the moment, that’s Jelly Bean — if Motorola had gotten its 2011 phones to run Ice Cream Sandwich, they’d still be out of date.)

I understand that getting an operating system to run on hundreds of phones from a bevy of manufacturers is far tougher than making it run only on hardware you build yourself. That’s why iPhone buyers know they’ll get updates the moment a new version of iOS is ready, while Android buyers don’t know what to expect. But as I keep saying, I don’t think that Google and phone makers have the option of ignoring the problem. The longer it festers, the more often it’ll come back to bite them, and their customers.

I mean, it can’t be good for Motorola to tick off customers so badly that they go out of their way to avoid its products in the future, can it?