Android 4 updates and OEM branding

The latest kerfuffle over handset manufacturers not supporting the latest version of Android–Ice Cream Sandwich–has been simplified by some to be a matter of money. More precisely, the assumption as stated by James Kendrick of ZDNet is that,

“…if OEMs keep updating older devices with new versions of Android it is more likely those customers won’t buy another gadget any time soon. That’s the churn that [manufacturers] depend on to keep sales hopping.”

He also notes that there’s a support cost for these older devices that manufacturers have to swallow by upgrading older devices with the latest version of Google’s free mobile operating system. Kendrick basically says that he accepts this cost-based excuse as a reasonable one.

I think that cost may play a factor, but more than cost I think that each OEM views their custom set of skins/widgets as the primary extension of their brand to the consumer, and the ability to layer that on top of “vanilla” Android trumps delivering the latest version of Android (with all of its native upgrades).

Each of the big OEMs has their own custom layer on top of Android that they tout alongside devices: HTC has Sense; Samsung has TouchWiz. Motorola loads motoBLUR. LG does some customization, but I think they have relied more on the actual hardware style in their marketing materials. You can find really terrific comparisons of these interfaces on YouTube–the point is that in a market awash with black, slab touchscreen Android phones, the only differentiation these companies can make is the interface.

To quote others in the tech world, “the spec is dead.” Dual core blah blah processor with somegigabytes of on-board storage with a 4.X” SuperFancyBlastNova screen doesn’t matter to the bulk of consumers anymore. Weather widgets that update with raindrops, social networking widgets that stream pictures from your last birthday party across the screen and well-organized application drawers to keep your app-buying binge in order–that’s what OEMs are touting on their Android phones these days.

When it comes down to it, as long as my phone delivers email, lets me open some MS Office docs, sends and receives text messages–oh, and handles the occasional phone call–I don’t really care who makes it. I’m the exception, having gone through 4 smartphones phones in 2011 (Palm Pre, Nexus S, Samsung Replenish and Motorola Photon) I just adapt to whatever I’m handed. I have -0- brand loyalty in pretty much anything, and smartphones are no exception. What I am interested in, is having the latest & greatest software available on my device so I can squeeze every last bit of functionality from the hardware.

If anything these OEMs’ refusal to update their devices due to cost comes down to the cost of implementing their UI layer on top of Android. Sure there is a cost to implementing Android on their specific hardware, I get that. But the additional overhead of adding their brand to Android is what will end up killing the upgrade.

If HTC Sense and Samsung TouchWiz is what sells smartphones, rather than solid, attractive hardware, then I guess this makes sense. I just don’t shop that way. I’d rather have a great hardware platform with a commitment to enabling future functionality via ongoing software development. Look at the iPhone 3G. It is a 2+ year old device running the same software as the newly-released iPhone 4S. New functionality has been added to a relatively “old” hardware platform. That’s pretty amazing value to deliver to a customer.

I don’t have a good way to wrap this up, and honestly could continue to ramble for a while. Bottom line – $500 hardware should be able to run software for a few years. If it can’t, you’re doing something wrong.

Justin Written by:

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