As CES continues to unfold, there is a sad but not completely unexpected trend on the show floor. There are many Android phones being announced, but so far almost none of them are running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Time after time PR reps coyly admit the device they are demoing is still running Android 2.3 Gingerbread, which is over a year old now.
Why is it that a Lenovo TV, and the Asus Transformer Prime update are the big ICS news? Let’s sort out why this opportunity has been missed by everyone involved.
Why this is happening
OEMs have had two months with the Ice Cream Sandwich source code, and Samsung has had it even longer due to its connection with the Nexus program. Even with this much time on their hands, the only hint of ICS on a phone was the Sprint Galaxy Nexus. In a sea of handsets, anyone that could have actually showed off a working Ice Cream Sandwich phone would have gotten some serious attention.
We must remember that a device being announced at CES does not have to come out immediately. In fact, it can take a long, long time as we learned from the Droid Bionic. Any build an OEM chose to show off wouldn’t need to be perfect. Asus was able to get ICS ready to go for the Transformer Prime, so why is the Droid 4 still on Gingerbread? Hubris, if you as us.
While Asus might have been able to find time to port a new hardware access layer to ICS for its Tegra 3 SoC, other OEMs have apparently not had enough time to tweak Android with custom skins. We know from past leaks of Samsung’s TouchWiz update that skinning will be alive and well on Android 4.0, despite our frequent objections.
Companies like Samsung, HTC, and Motorola are so sure of their ability to improve on Android that they would never dream of showing off software on their flagship devices without modifications. Some companies, HTC being the most prominent, don’t even think of their phones as Android devices. HTC is all about pushing Sense, and while it’s based on Android, the underlying version of Android doesn’t matter as much as what is happening in HTC's custom UI. Even Sony, recently freed from Ericsson, is continuing to push modified versions of Android 2.3 with a light skin.
Money has been invested in the software builds we are seeing at CES. A manufacturer isn’t going to start from scratch just because Google has added a new API level to the platform. After the current development projects are done, work on Android 4.0-based ROMs will start.
Why it's a problem
Android 4.0 is a huge departure from previous versions of the OS. Even if you set aside the new look and feel, there are significant improvements behind the scenes that make Android so much better. Google is not shy to admit that it took ideas from various skins and custom home screens when it designed ICS. That doesn’t mean the skins should be a stand in for Android 4.0; this is an approach without standards.
On Android 4.0, features like scrollable widgets, dynamic notifications, re-sizable widgets, and more useful folders are part of the publicly available code. Developer have access to the APIs to make their apps play nicely with the platform and take advantage of these features. The same is not true for manufacturers that have been ham-handedly attacking the same problems. Only HTC has tried to let developers in on its UI with OpenSense. Although Sense is itself fragmented with different versions and only represents a sub-set of Android devices anyway.
Google also recently explained that OEMs would have to include the stock Holo theme in released phones to help out the development community. This will make apps more uniform, and interfaces easier to design. It is far and away better to just write code for Android in general, and that’s not happening when everyone is stuck on Gingerbread. For that reason, ICS is just better for users and developers alike.
Why it's a cycle
Let’s take a trip back in time to about a year ago. The tech press was haranguing Google for the tiny showing Android 2.3 Gingerbread had in the updated platform numbers. The new software was stuck at about 0.5% of all Android devices. Froyo, the previous software version, was still running on over half of phones. In early 2012, Android 4.0 is at about 0.6% and Gingerbread is running a little over half of other devices. Coincidence? Probably not.
This is the rate at which updates are going to happen. It’s going to take the better part of a year for the current version of Android to take over the market. There are some phones that won’t be updated due to hardware and time constraints. Just take this in and think about the incredible slowness of OEMs in getting new versions of the platform ready to go. In this context, a lack of Android 4.0 devices at CES is no surprise. Next year, we’ll probably be saying the same thing about Android 5.0 Jellybean (or whatever they call it).
A high-profile event like CES puts the Android update problem on display for all to see. Android 4.0 is the current software version, but OEMs lag further behind than we might like to think. Some devices are slated to get updates in the next few months, but phones on Android 2.3 will probably continue to launch well into the spring.