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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.

Comments on "Android’s Next Challenge? iTunes"

nerduno

You obviously have never used the Nexus One. You can update the firmware on the phone in 3 clicks: Settings, About Phone, System Updates. As for using the phone on AT&T\’s network, the phone is perfectly usable on AT&T\’s network with 2G. We use it all day, every day. In fact, it performs as well as our iPhone did with 3G coverage on AT&T\’s network.

Locking phones to particular 3G networks has much less to do with hardware manufacturers than it does with service providers. There\’s also the issue of radiation which would be generated by multiple transmitters. AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon all operate on different 3G networks. Every phone in the marketplace from every manufacturer supports exactly one 3G network so it\’s unclear why Google would get hammered for what is clearly an industry-wide practice.

Reply
vkelman

@nerduno,
It\’s nice to hear that it is so easy to update the firmware on Nexus One. With Android Dev Phone 1, users can only do it by following complex instructions from HTC. The operation is quite dangerous too. I was glad to switch from a stock Android to Cyanogen MOD. Besides its major advantage of being able to launch apps from SD card, it also offers a simple and automatic over-the-air updates.

I\’m too waiting to see if my current provider (which happened to be AT&T) offers a Nexus One analog with 3G support. Yes, I found EDGE acceptable with Android Dev Phone 1, but prefer to complement such a great phone as Nexus One with a fast network too.

Regarding additional radiation issued by phones with multiple 3G frequencies support, I have heard that Sony Xperia Android phone is going to support 3G frequencies of several providers. I guess it\’s more about business and politic than about technical problems.

Reply
fableson

@nerduno – you\’re correct – I have not used the Nexus One. And I explained why in the article. I am glad to hear it can be updated so easily. But the same is not the case for every other Android device.

Going back to EDGE is not a desirable option — even if it is \”as good as\” your iPhone experience.

Reply
dantrevino

Wow dude.

So 10 paragraphs about your crappy AT&T contract and not being able to use a nexus one, then 2 paragraphs explaining your weak attempt at attention grabbing headlines?

I\’m not usually this critical of articles, but this was a complete waste of time.

Looking forward to something more useful like your previous HTML5 and android articles.

Dan

Reply
caletronics

\”You can even “roll back” an update if desired.\”

Uh, no you can\’t. There\’s lots of Mac users who would love to have this but sadly Apple\’s position is (quoting from memory) \”users should always use the latest version available.\”

Reply
fableson

@dantrevino:

first, thanks for your comments regarding the HTML5 and Android articles — I am glad you found them of value.

Regarding your comments about this article: I am actually quite happy with my \”crappy\” AT&T contract and wish I could get 3G Android support on that network. T-Mobile is lousy in my area of Northern New Jersey, for voice, let alone high speed internet service.

The bigger issue here is that an \”unlocked phone\” is not what it once was, now that 3G is an offering worth having. In the days prior to 3G data and all that comes with it, switching from one mediocre (GPRS,EDGE) data provider to another was just fine. An unlocked (T-Mobile 3G phone) is not worth the investment… and I cannot update any of my other Android phones to 2.x yet — that is frustrating for early adopters.

My point about iTunes is that when Apple releases code, it is available to all iPhone devices. Of course code for features like a compass will not work on an early 4Gig iphone device, but the basic OS upgrade will run there. Will that change one day, yeah probably.

And @caletronics: I am talking about rolling back iPhone software revs, not Mac OS revs. And of course, every software provider will tell you that they want you on the latest version of their code. That\’s my point exactly, I want to get there with my paper-weight Android phones.

Thanks for your feedback.

Frank

Reply
brianandrus

The nexus one DOES work on AT&T. I bought the no-contract version and slipped my AT&T sim into it with no issues. My previous device/plan was the blackberry unlimited data/minutes/text.

AND it works with my google voice. Even gives me the choice as to which number to call from.

So far I rather like the device. Started playing with the SDK and LOVE the look/sound/feel of the Mystique game. 3-D first person view on it. pretty cool!

I do see the issue with it switching from edge/3g and back during use. That bugs me. Battery life is adequate, but not if you have bluetooth and gprs on all day.

Overall a solid device that has great potential. More research needed for me to give great glowing praise.

Reply
fableson

@brianandrus

Thanks for your feedback on your experience with AT&T. I never said it didn\’t or wouldn\’t work with AT&T, just that it was not an option for me, without the 3G option. The bigger issue being that unlocked \”ain\’t what it used to be\” when the device doesn\’t support your carrier\’s data network at the desired level. I\’ve just gotten used to 3G and would prefer to not down-grade, particularly at the $500+ price tag.

Battery life is another challenge for the latest handsets. The best battery life for a very capable device I have seen (relatively speaking) is for EDGE based blackberry devices. Adding bluetooth, GPS, 3G to a sexy color display is a real challenge on the battery.

Thankfully most devices give you the option of an extra battery in your backpack to swap out. I had an iPhone for less than a week (early model). Within a day or two, I ran the battery down from my normal usage, which is pretty heavy. It was so low I had to plug it in just to check a phone number. I had switched from a treo where I always had an extra battery (or two) in my bag and thought nothing of changing it as needed. After my 1 week experiment with iphone I switched to a BB Curve with good success.

Reply
brianandrus

I guess I am not understanding. The Nexus one DOES support 3G out of the box. Now AT&T has rather limited 3G coverage, but that is certainly not the fault of the phone. So the leap of \” it was not an option for me, without the 3G option\” does not seem to make sense.

I did admit there have been some issue with the device not \”making its mind up\” given the choice between 3G and EDGE, fortunately, there was a patch released and automatically made available on my phone this morning. When seems to go to your concern about not being able to get software updates standardized across carriers. I am on AT&T, a \”non-supported\” network for the Nexus One and still received the update when it was released. Seems like that must be standardized for such and event to happen.

So I am now on Android 2.1. I\’ll play with it and see what benefits may be there.

Reply
brianandrus

* Added:
Ok, I see my ignorance was showing in that the 3G of AT&T is not necessarily the 3G of TMobile. Odd to me because I HAVE had moments of 3G connection on AT&T network. I was somewhere around Morgan Hill, I think. So maybe a few of AT&T\’s 3G transponders use a more standard protocol.

Looks like you may be in luck tho:
\”Documents for what appears to be a new Nexus One model that\’s compatible with AT&T\’s 3G frequencies just popped up on the FCC\’s Web site.\”

Now if they are including CDMA, Verizon folks will be happier too.

Reply
fableson

@brianandrus

Thanks for the update about the patch being sent to your device and also about the info re: AT&T\’s 3G option. I may be facing my real moment of truth…cannot I separate myself from the physical keyboard on the blackberry :)

And yes, hitting CDMA would give them great exposure — though I wonder how Motorola would feel about that!

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