Android Update Delays: AT&T CEO Passes the Buck…to Google

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AT&T Randall Stephenson speaks at a Milken Institute event on May 2, 2012

At a Milken Institute event on May 2, an audience member asked AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson why phones are so often so slow to get the latest versions of Android. Stephenson’s response is raising eyebrows — including those of 9to5Google’s Seth Weintraub, who provides this quote from the CEO’s comments:

Google determines what platform gets the newest releases and when. A lot of times, that’s a negotiated arrangement and that’s something we work at hard. We know that’s important to our customers. That’s kind of an ambiguous answer because I can’t give you a direct answer in this setting.

When I read Stephenson’s quote in Weintraub’s post, I gave the AT&T CEO the benefit of the doubt. I thought maybe he was talking about the flagship devices that are the first to get a new version of Android — such as Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus, the first Ice Cream Sandwich phone. Those deals are presumably based on negotiations between Google and phone makers.

But the questioner in the audience is clearly talking about the Android updates that are available — or not available — for phones that consumers have already purchased. If the delays are principally Google’s fault, it’s news to me. And, apparently, news to Google, which released this statement:

Mr. Stephenson’s carefully worded quote caught our attention and frankly we don’t understand what he is referring to. Google does not have any agreements in place that require a negotiation before a handset launches. Google has always made the latest release of Android available as open source at as soon as the first device based on it has launched. This way, we know the software runs error-free on hardware that has been accepted and approved by manufacturers, operators and regulatory agencies such as the FCC. We then release it to the world.

Now, as my colleague Jared Newman noted to me, Google isn’t telling the whole story, either: it open-sources Android but keeps tighter control over the Google apps for the operating system, as well as the Google Play application store. And I don’t get the sense that swiftly updating as many Android devices as possible is that high on Google’s list of prorities. (If it is, it’s a priority that’s consistently failing to result in real-world benefit to Android users.)

Still, Stephenson’s comments are confusing to those of us who thought we understood the process by which new versions of Android arrive on old phones; a clarification would seem to be in order.

Playing Pollyanna, I am glad that Stephenson says that slow OS updates are bad for AT&T customers, as he does repeatedly, including in a snippet not quoted by Weintraub. When tech pundits like me squawk about Android fragmentation, we’re sometimes told that we’re imagining a problem that doesn’t really exist. It’s a relief to hear Stephenson acknowledge that the issue is real — even though he seems to be saying that it’s Google’s fault.