Android’s Next Challenge? iTunes

Android has been updated again, but the list of phones waiting for an upgrade continues to grow. There is one lesson Apple can teach Android

Moving Target

You are probably already aware that Google has launched the Nexus one, aka “the Google Phone”.

The reviews are mixed from what I have read so far.

Early in the rumor mill — way back when there was first talk of a Google-backed device — the thought was that perhaps the Google phone would be “free” but laden with advertisements. The idea being that if you let Google display ads to you morning, noon and night on your mobile phone, you could enjoy free… everything.

Well, so far it looks like Google’s cell phone purchasing model is pretty similar to the current industry practice — give a two-year commitment and you get a discount on an otherwise pretty pricey phone. Cancel early and win a nice penalty as a parting gift. Yawn.

You can get the Nexus One in an unlocked variety — which is of course a nice, albeit expensive, option at $530 USD.

As 3G networks have come of age, the benefit of an “unlocked phone” is not quite what it used to be — the Nexus One works with T-Mobile’s 3G network, but not AT&T’s network. I am not enough of a baseband radio hack to go into the differences here, though if you are interested there are plenty of resources explaining the signal differences between the different 3G networks and why the Nexus One only plays 3G with T-Mobile. Was this a strictly technical decision on HTC’s part to enable only one network’s 3G network, or was it a business decision by Google? Did AT&T not play nice? Is it Apple’s fault? Not sure, though I am sure someone knows.

Personally, I was hopeful that I might be able to pick one up, but alas, using T-Mobile is a non-starter for me as I am running on an AT&T device today — and dropping over $500 for an unlocked device that is only capable of EDGE data speeds and usage model didn’t really get my water hot. I have become strangely addicted to viewing email on my mobile phone while talking. Never while driving of course! So, if my choices are EDGE or “wait”, I think I’ll sit out this round. After all, I’ve still got the $500 Android Developer phone on my desk that looks like it has little hope for a supported 2.X update from Mountain View.

But I need a 2.X device!

So let’s say you are an Android developer and need to test out some of the Bluetooth APIs which were introduced in version 2.0 of the SDK. Which device would you use? Let’s see, there is the “Droid” from Motorola and now the Nexus One that are at version 2.0 or later. What about the Sprint Hero, the T-Mobile G1, the Droid Eris from HTC (Verizon), or one of the unlocked Android Developer Phones? These phones (and others) are waiting on a 2.0 update.

Getting these phones upgraded takes a few stars to “align”. You need the OS level to be released by the Android team. Then the manufacturer must update and test their device-specific enhancements — case in point is HTC’s SenseUI. And then get the carriers to get behind the update — there has certainly got to be a spike in customer service calls when upgrades are pushed out. Those calls go to Sprint and T-Mobile, so the carriers have to be willing to go through that expenditure for let’s see — oh, yeah, little immediate revenue boost.

Supposedly some of these devices will be updated to version 2.0 in the first half of 2010. Great — but what new phones will be out between now and the availability of those updates? And who wants a 2.0 phone? 2.1 is out now and if the Android team is true to form, we’ll be at version 2.2 or 2.3 by June of this year.

My guess is that these constant updates are not music to the ears of the program managers of HTC, Motorola and others — though I could be wrong, perhaps they like the constant state of flux — job security perhaps. Writing a book about a moving target is challenging enough — I imagine pushing hardware through design, manufacturing and support is a non-trivial undertaking.

Latest and greatest

With the release of the Nexus One, we’re now at version 2.1 of the Android SDK. The API Level, which is how things are managed “internally” to the SDK is at level 7.

I guess the Android team couldn’t use the Microsoft approach of naming things after the year in which it was (supposed to) launch. Instead of Android 2010, they would have to use a Julian calendar — marking releases with the day of the year instead. At least they’re continuing to innovate and push new code out.

One of the commonly mentioned threats to Android is the topic of “fragmentation”. I think we are seeing some of that right now — there seems to be a bit of leap frog going on where a device on one carrier network has a newer version than a competitor’s device that released the month prior. There needs to be some firming up of the releases to have the commitment of all the players involved to make sure the phone stays up to date with the latest versions as they ship. Who wants to buy a phone with an “old” version of the software and an uncertain time frame until it will be updated, if ever.

What if there were a simple, easy way to update your phone’s OS level?

What was that about iTunes?

Mentioning iTunes in an article about Android is sure to get someone’s attention — now before you start throwing sour apple cores at me, think about this. When Apple introduces a new version of OS level software for the iPhone, users basically connect their phones to their computer and are notified of an available update to their OS. A click of the mouse brings the new version down and installs it to the device. You can even “roll back” an update if desired. That’s pretty cool. This upgrade process is certainly one of the things Apple got right. Chalk it up to a consumer products company versus an Internet search company perhaps, I’m not sure.

In conclusion, I continue to be a big fan of Android and I am quite eager to get a 3G device compatible with AT&T’s network. Google’s next phone might not be the right one for me either, but I am hopeful that the user experience and support structure around the “next Nexus” phone will improve as rapidly as SDK’s have been shipping. And being able to update the phone with iTunes or any other software that will offer a “one-click” update would be nice. Perhaps I’ll put it on my Christmas list for 2010 — it’s never too early to think ahead.

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