This is the vexing question that has been percolating inside my mind while reviewing the Sony Xperia S: is Google's Ice Cream Sandwich version of Android out yet? The instinctive answer would be quick and affirmative, what with the Galaxy Nexus having been on sale for months, but go to your local phone store and try to count the number of non-Nexus ICS handsets currently on sale. It won't take you long since the answer will almost invariably be zero.
Android 4.0 (ICS) was officially announced on October 18th alongside an SDK for developers to start building apps for the new platform. A month later, it was made available as an open source download and accompanied by the launch of the hero device for the new OS version, the Galaxy Nexus. Google still isn't in the business of selling phones, but you might be forgiven for thinking it places a heavy priority on its own sub-brand of Nexus phones. The Nexus S, the previous flagship Googlephone, is the only other smartphone to be receiving an official over-the-air update to version 4.0.
Google is having its Ice Cream Sandwich and eating it too, but users are left hungry
In the immediate wake of the ICS announcement, HTC's response to questions about upgrades for its older smartphones was telling: the company said it was "reviewing [the] features and functionality" of the new operating system and evaluating the viability of updates. Was HTC really kept out of the loop until the code was publicly detailed and released under an open source license? It's possible.
Rumors of Google playing favorites among Android manufacturers by providing early access to its next OS for some but not others have been heard, but we shouldn't be so credulous as to place all the blame for these delays on Google's shoulders. We're now four and a half months removed from the launch of ICS and Asus, for one, has been able to turn the stock software into a decent, if imperfect, Ice Cream Sandwich ROM for its Transformer Prime tablet.
At this point, any company that continues to ship new devices with an older version of Android only has itself to blame. Although Sony can point to the collective lethargy among Android phone makers in delivering updates to and new devices with Ice Cream Sandwich, its own failure to surpass them with the Xperia S cannot be excused.
The manufacturers' critical failure with respect to Android updates has been a resolute insistence on applying their own skin on top of the stock OS, no matter how much that process slows down the user experience or the release schedule. Sadly, they also don't seem to have learned anything — or enough — from their former errors, as the current situation is a repeat of what we saw in 2010, when the Nexus One was first to receive both Android 2.1 and 2.2, and 2011, when the Nexus S taunted other phones with its Gingerbread exclusivity for months.
Google doesn't make a habit of enforcing exclusives, of course, but its own active involvement in the Android upgrade process seems to mirror Apple's behavior with the iPhone: get the hero device out with the new OS, update the previous hardware generation, and focus on delivering a cohesive user experience that's recognizably yours. The group of Android phone makers laboring under the mistaken belief that they need their own skins to differentiate away from the stock OS is actually helping Google in strengthening its own brand and credibility.
Android phone owners are left at the mercy of quixotic phone makers and myopic carriers
The one party that isn't gaining anything in this unholy muddle is the user. The term "Android" still encompasses the full range of devices running the operating system, from the Acer Liquid Express to the ZTE Blade II, and yet we're sat watching as a two-stage software update roadmap develops. One is for Google's own, the Xooms and the Nexuses of the world, and the other is for everyone else, leaving Android phone owners at the mercy of quixotic phone makers and myopic carriers. Needless to say, that's not the way it should be.
If Google is in charge of the Android project, it should accept responsibility for all of it, because that's how the rest of the world perceives it. And if it's not, it should come clean by clearly defining which devices will and won't benefit from its "express new OS" service.
Android users will want to know.