Waiting for "Ice Cream Sandwich"

In 2010, director, David Guggenheim and producer, Lesley Chilcott, put out a documentary called, "Waiting for 'Superman' -- a film that analyzes the failures of the American public education system. The documentary points the finger at what it considers to be the culprit behind this nation's downfall -- the broken institution of teacher's unions, the manner in which teacher's are evaluated and, as a result, the down-prioritization of our youth's education. Critics not withstanding, the reason why this film was made was to bring to light the disparaging issue that our children aren't receiving a high-level of education. What does any of this have to do with Android updates? Specifically, what does this have to do with my Android 4.0.4, Ice Cream Sandwich, update for my Verizon model, Galaxy Nexus? Editorials, like that of Mr. Adam Mills, would have you believe that:

"Five months without an update is ludicrous for any smartphone, let alone one that is supposed to be at the forefront of Android updates... it's unacceptable and quite frankly, it has tarnished my experience..."

Mr. Mills isn't the only one who's decrying the state of Android updates. Mr. Taylor Wimberly is in a fit of rage after being robbed of thousands of dollars to "beta test" Verizon's Galaxy Nexus.

"The process in which US carriers update the software on their Android phones is completely broken, and Google knows this."

Having read these opinions (and others like it), you'd think we have an American Public School System crisis in Android-land. Heaven forbid that there would be five months between minor updates for Google's flagship device! Think of the children! The Wall Street Journal reported that Google is paying attention somewhat by expanding its carrier unlocked Nexus devices from one to five, utilizing different OEMs and selling them directly through their Play Store. In many ways, what's going on here is very analogous to the WFS documentary: the system is broken and there is a better alternative: in WFS, it was charter schools; for Android, it's unlocked carrier devices direct from Google.

But is there really a problem?

Critics would have you believe that our Public School system is broken because of a gross, lack of funding. There's no money, that's why our schools stink. Critics would also have you believe that the updating process for Android is broken because there's too much carrier control; they're mucking up the process. That's why update process to Android stinks.

I'm here to tell you that I don't think it's entirely the carrier's fault.

First of all, I think the problem is us -- the user. Somewhere along the way, from reading all of the tech sites to which we belong, we got some errant notion that we deserve updates to our smart devices, like we're entitled to them. At first, we wanted them on a yearly basis, coincident to when Google announces there's one available. These would be qualified as the major updates -- the 2.0, 2.2, 2.3, and 4.0s. That's perfectly, somewhat reasonable. That covetousness evolved in the last month or so, where now, as a user, we want even the minor updates in a timely manner -- the x.0.x updates. And by timely, per the cited editorials, I mean less than 5 months. Now, I'm not saying that it's wrong to want something, especially since Google and OEMs have promised updates (at least for up to 18 months). So, let's table this for a moment.

The carriers are the problem then. This has to be the case because carriers bastardize the Android OS by throwing in bloatware, removing functionality, and, in general, delay when devices get their updates. Tech blogger, JP Raphael, took a look at the impact of carriers (and OEMs) had on Android updates, a year ago. Perhaps a bit outdated, Verizon took top honors at 58 days (on average) for devices to receive those updates. Sprint was second and at&t was dead last. Google and at&t recently got into a spat, pointing fingers at each other regarding the update process. Even so, blaming the carriers is only half the story because working with those carriers are OEMs. We've seen before that custom UI and skin pose upgrading difficulties, although some OEMs would have you believe that it's hardware that is the issue in integrating the OS. So, which is it? User? Carrier? OEM?

None. It's Google. We're all waiting for "Google."

It's in my opinion that Google has pulled off the most masterful "bait and switch" game in the industry. While users are caught pointing the finger at themselves, carriers and OEMs, the culprit slipped out of the library with the candlestick holder unnoticed.

"Where's my 4.0.4 update for my Verizon Galaxy Nexus? I've been waiting over 5 months!"

In speaking about fragmentation, Mr. Charles West made an insightful statement:

"The sad thing is, I don't believe Google really cares about fragmentation -- if they truly cared, they would have addressed it already. We, Android supporters, tend to forget that our favorite OS is owned by a giant search engine whose biggest cash generator is advertisements."

Even if your device never gets an OS update, the browser works, right? AdMob ads remain clickable correct? Verizon took a lot of heat for delaying the launch of the Galaxy Nexus. Whether it was pressure from Google or pressure from potential customers, the Galaxy Nexus LTE was finally going to be released mid-December (2011). Coincident to that release, the version of ICS to go with it was 4.0.2, said to include important bug fixes, like the persistent volume issue, random restarts, silent incoming calls, multi-touch issues, and keyboard orientation (to name just a few). Almost makes sense that Verizon delayed the launch, huh?

As an original DROID owner, I am all too familiar with those excruciatingly long waits for updates. One week, Verizon would tease with an update, only to withdraw the update and go back to the drawing board. Through that time, I came to the gradual understanding that Verizon does its best to quality check and assure the software releases to be as problem-free as possible. The pock mark on their update report card were the updates made to the Samsung Fascinate that for some users persist to this day!

So, it's the carrier's fault!

I thought the same thing for a (long) while and decried Verizon for ruining my life because I didn't get the Gingerbread update to my DROID. Then I realized something, recently. It's really not (entirely) Verizon's fault. Hear me out for a moment:

1. I admit. I go into my Verizon Galaxy Nexus' settings menu. Click on the "About Phone" and check for the update pretty much every day. I know that there was a soft roll-out of 4.0.4 and some users are currently running it. There's even a manual update path for those who have rooted their Galaxy Nexus out of the box. On a recent Vergecast, Joshua Topolsky admitted that he's gotten his update already. So, what's the status? Why hasn't Verizon fully rolled out 4.0.4 by now? In pressing Verizon, they released the following statement that you've likely read already:

"All updates are a result of work with our hardware and software partners and have to be tested on our network just like our phones. When they are ready we push them to handsets but we don't do that until we are absolutely certain they won't harm either customers' phones or our network."

The most telling parts of this statement are: "tested on our network just like our phones," and "absolutely certain they won't harm...phones or network." You can derive two things from these statements: a) Verizon is indeed very careful about quality control and assurance, b) they are extremely protective of their network. So, what are the implications?

2. Let's look at quality control first. I've already alluded to QC/QA as being the culprit to the initial delay of the Galaxy Nexus and its subsequent (and almost immediate) update to 4.0.2. The Galaxy Nexus continues to have issues for some, including drop calls, poor battery life and inability to hang onto a signal, thus necessitating 4.0.4, right? So, what's the hold-up? Quality control. The Galaxy Nexus LTE was supposed to get 4.0.4 in April, but the update to the GSM devices were immediately plagued with signal issues. A revision of that update was sent towards the end of April, supposedly fixing the signal issues, as well as, improving performance, stability and some other bugs. Nothing indicates this is yet a widespread release. What's the take away?

A lot of people want to turn our heads to look at the company from Cupertino and how they do updates, not thwarted by carriers. What I am about to say might throw the Fandroid Community into a hissy-fit: Google ain't Apple, and vice versa. What I mean by that is, for the most part, Apple pretty much nails their updates. The kind of quality control that Apple does in-house can be considered second to none. The likelihood that an update to their devices results in catastrophic device failure or harm to the network is minuscule. On the other hand, you have Google. Google lives in a persistent state of "beta." As good as Android 4.0 is, it's not immune to its issues. Even what is considered "stable" by Google's account (4.0.2) is a nightmare for some Verizon Galaxy Nexus owners (though I haven't experienced them myself).

That's Google. It's beta.

For Verizon, "beta" doesn't cut it. A device that drops calls and can't connect to the "America's most reliable network" is a headache for customer relations. Not everyone reads Anandtech for an explanation for why the Nexus can't hold signal. The casual consumer experiences a dropped call or lost signal, they attribute it to Verizon, not Google. In my estimation, Verizon is choosing the lesser of two evils: 1) delay the update, get it right and take the flack that comes with "standing in the way of timely updates," or 2) deal with the fall-out of yet another buggy update that renders customer devices problematic.

3. The other implication from Verizon's released statement is harm to the network. I think this is the area where people love to jump down Verizon's neck."Verizon is delaying the Galaxy Nexus over Google Wallet." Android, in particular, a stock Android experience from Google, poses an interesting dance for Verizon. On the one hand, the Nexus epitomizes what Google Android can do and is supposed to represent the purest iteration of the brand. On the other hand, that "pure experience" presents some difficulties in the way of its openness and the power it gives to the end-user. How do you control a platform that defines itself, in its purest sense, as being uncontrolled? If you add bloatware, the platform has been tarnished. If you don't include Google's own apps, the platform is tarnished. If I can't root it and use it to tether for free, the platform has been tarnished. Why can't I download emulators from the Play Store? Bah, the platform is tarnished! Verizon has its burgeoning LTE network to consider. They're investing a ton of cash to push their LTE and thus devices that utilize LTE. The Galaxy Nexus is a halo device. Get it right and you have customers for life. Get it wrong and they're choosing at&t or Sprint. I think Google is applying pressure. I think the Nexus device poses issues and platform capabilities that Verizon didn't anticipate. So, it doesn't surprise me that Verizon is being extra cautious in dotting every "i" and crossing every "t" when it comes to a software release on Google's Nexus line on their network.

Here's the conclusion to this all: I said earlier that Verizon's not entirely at fault. I still believe that. In fact, I believe the fault lies mostly with Google. Verizon doesn't go from 58 days (on average) to update devices to 150 days (and counting) because it "feels like it." The onus is on Google. Google's making strides, I believe. Opening up the Nexus program to five different OEMs means that each OEM will have early access to future versions of Android. Early access means more lead time in tightly integrating the OS with hardware. Early access means more lead time to integrate custom UI and skins, thereby shortening the update path to skinned devices. That's the first step: putting it in the hands of OEMs. But here's the big second step: Google has (perhaps in conjunction with OEMs but most definitely with their Nexus partners) got to produce the most relatively bug-free versions of their OS. Google can't live in "beta" when it comes to Android. As much as ICS has done to provide the most integrated and intuitive Android to date, their next step has got to be overall quality control of the OS. Could you imagine multi-touch issues with iOS? Could imagine keyboard lag in landscape mode in iOS? It's unfathomable; even if you're a Fandroid, we can appreciate the extent of quality control that goes into Apple's software. That's why we jump on any Apple misstep because it so rarely happens. Even more so, we can't issue a double-standard here; we can't give Google a free-pass. It's time for Google to get with the program in this day and age of mobile technology. If they want to compete with the likes of Apple for spit and polish, it's got to happen with Jelly Bean. We're all waiting on you, Google. Your move.