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Android manufacturers mostly mum on Jelly Bean updates as Google tries to repair a broken system

Android manufacturers mostly mum on Jelly Bean updates as Google tries to repair a broken system


Android manufacturers are unwilling to say when they will update current devices to Jelly Bean. Google has made some changes to how it releases Android to help, but will they do any good?

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Upside Down Jelly Bean
Upside Down Jelly Bean

After any major OS update, the first question on everybody's mind is naturally "When can I get it?" As Android owners know all-too-well, the answer to that question inevitably involves waiting, rumors, innuendo, leaks, and often crushing disappointment. With the announcement of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean at Google I/O, there was the same hope there is for every Google I/O: that the situation would change. Sadly, it's not at all clear that it will — if the responses we've gotten from major Android OEMs is any indication.

In case you missed it, Google only listed a few "Nexus-class" devices that will receive Jelly Bean in July: the Nexus S, Galaxy Nexus, and Motorola Xoom. To get beyond that, we reached out to several OEMs and most have given some variation on "no comment" when it comes to upgrading current devices to 4.1. Acer, Asus, and HTC all declined to comment on whether (to say nothing of when) 4.1 would arrive on their devices — though HTC did say "Watch this space for more information." LG told us it is evaluating Android 4.1 for current devices, but doesn't have anything official to announce. As of this writing, we've not yet heard back from Motorola, but will update this article if and when we do.

Update: HTC has since confirmed that it has plans to bring Jelly Bean to the One X and One S.

Samsung was slightly more forthcoming, reiterating that the Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus (which it makes) will be receiving the update and that "additional devices" would be eligible for the Jelly Bean update:

Samsung will soon announce which additional devices are eligible for the Jelly Bean update. As the world’s largest smartphone manufacturer, Samsung leads the Android community with best-in-class devices like the Galaxy S III, and is creating new device categories with products like the Galaxy Note. Samsung has delivered the most Nexus-branded lead OS devices and we are pleased that Google will be bringing Samsung Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S customers the first experiences of Jelly Bean on a handheld device.It's probably a good bet that the Galaxy S III (at least) will be in line for an update, as a source told us that variants of the smartphone received a last-minute upgrade to two gigabytes of RAM so that it would be "future-proof." Jelly Bean itself certainly doesn't require that much RAM (The Galaxy Nexus has just 1GB and feels "buttery"), but it's quite possible that adding TouchWiz on top of Android 4.1 could.

The situation with Jelly Bean is the same as it ever was: wait and see

Last year at Google I/O, the company promised that it would work with manufacturers to "create new guidelines for how quickly devices will get updated after new Android platform releases [...] and for long they'll continue to get updated after that." A laundry list of companies committed to giving making sure that "new devices [...] will receive the latest Android platform updates for 18 months after their first launch if the hardware allows." It's fair to say that the track record here is spotty across the board, thanks in part to that "if the hardware allows" technicality. In short, the situation with Jelly Bean is the same as it ever was: wait and see.

Microsoft has at least given its users clear and unambiguous guidance about what to expect

Stepping back from Android, you can see just how unique and troubling this situation really is. Although it hasn't made any explicit commitments in regard to updates, Apple has done a remarkable job ensuring that relatively recent iOS devices receive updates to the latest version. Even Microsoft has done a better job than Google here. Yes, it has said that current devices won't receive the full Windows Phone 8 update, so from that perspective the company has failed to do the work to keep its current users up-to-date. However, Microsoft has at least given its users clear and unambiguous guidance about what to expect. Google cannot corral even its closest partners into saying which devices will receive updates and when — last year's promise notwithstanding.

This year's version of an update promise is a new Google initiative called the "Platform Development Kit." Here's how Android's director of product management, Hugo Barra, explained the PDK:

[It's] like the SDK, but for Android hardware developers. It contains the necessary source code and low-level API documentation required to port Android to your hardware if you are a hardware developers. PDK will be available to Android device partners two to three months before [emphasis his] the platform release date of all future Android versions.

We've actually started with this release — a beta of the Jelly Bean PDK has already been available to a few partners for the last few weeks and they've been providing us valuable feedback. We've incorporated that feedback and now it's available to everyone on an ongoing basis. PDK enables Android OEMs and chipset makers to innovate in parallel with Google and ensure the latest Android release can be well-optimized for their hardware.

Whereas previously only "Nexus" partners received early access to the next version of Android — with the rest sometimes only able to access it when Google fully open-sourced it, now it looks like there will be a two-stage process for future versions of Android. First, hardware partners will get access a few months before release, then everybody will be able to dig into the source code once it's officially available.

What will this do for the upgrade story for Android? Obviously, it's entirely too early to say. Presumably the hope is that those extra couple of months will give partners a head-start as they try to "port Android" (an interesting choice of words) onto their hardware, which would then mean more timely updates and perhaps even clearer guidance when new versions are officially announced. However, in the grand scheme of things, a few months is a fairly short timespan when it comes to software development.

These companies are not likely to stop "skinning" Android anytime soon

Consider this: the Droid RAZR was announced on the same day as the Galaxy Nexus. Eight months later, the Android 4.0 update for the RAZR was released in the same week that Google announced Android 4.1. As much as many Android users would like manufacturers to sell more devices with a "stock" Android experience, the fact of the matter is that these companies are not likely to stop "skinning" Android anytime soon. In fact, "skinning" is really the wrong term for customizations like Sense and TouchWiz. Given how deeply these customizations go — often down to kernel changes — "porting" is much more apropos. "Porting" takes quite a bit longer than "skinning."

We will have to wait until the next version of Android, when Google gives OEMs early access to the PDK, to know whether this new policy will result in faster updates and clearer information. Even then, I'm not optimistic that it will result in a real change in how quickly Android updates are rolled out. The net effect of the PDK, then, may simply be to shift the blame from Google to OEMs when it comes to this waiting game. When the next version of Android is announced, Google can simply say "Well, we gave these OEMs access to the PDK two months ago, ask them why they don't have an update for you." When we do just that, it would be nice to believe that those manufacturers will have answers. Nice, but sadly not likely.