Monday, 30 April 2012

It's not your imagination: Ice Cream Sandwich updates really are slow


Does it feel like the Android updating process is as slow as molasses? Of course just like waiting for a watched pot to boil, the agony of waiting is exacerbated every time a new update comes to Android; we spend months waiting to see who will get the updates at all, and who will be first. Those who take longer are then subject to critical analysis – is it their custom UI skin that’s holding them back? Do they simply not want to invest as many resources in supporting your phone as company "X"? Does getting early access via the Nexus program help out? (For those wondering, the answers are: sometimes, probably, and most likely).

Pundits often urge patience – it really does take time to adapt new versions of an operating system to a phone. And subjectively it’s never going to feel fast enough, since once you see those shiny new features demoed an update can't come soon enough; you want that taste of Ice Cream Sandwich on your phone RIGHT NOW. So are we all just a bunch of impatient ingrates, or is ICS taking a really, really long time to make its way to handsets?

It turns out that this time it isn’t you: the updates really are taking longer than normal.

To demonstrate that the wait really is taking longer, the team at Android Police put together a graph showing the rate of adoption of each major update, synced to the date that the SDK was made available (i.e. the point where all companies could start working on those updates). Despite claims that OEMs have gotten the message that updates are important, it turns out that the adoption rate of Android 4.0 is dramatically trailing that of previous updates.


It's not your imagination: Ice Cream Sandwich updates really are slow


In fact it's dramatically slower. Now, to be fair, the rapid adoption rates of Eclair and Froyo were in part due to there being a significant portion of the Android ecosystem made up by the Nexus One and the original Motorola Droid, both of which saw quick updates to Froyo. And the summer's big seller, the Droid X, also caught an update within a couple months of launching (as did the Droid Incredible and the HTC Evo). So in many ways the Gingerbread update is a better comparison with Ice Cream Sandwich, and as you can see the adoption curve is fairly similar between the two. But despite the similar shape of the adoption curve, ICS is still lagging notably behind.


Why is that? It’s easy to pick on OEMs and carriers for not caring enough, or deciding that it just isn’t in their immediate financial interest, but if that were really the case we’d expect to see at least one or two companies that jumped the gun and got the ICS update out to make their phones more appealing.  Instead, it appears that the 4.0 update is really different from past versions of Android, so it’s taking longer to get them out the door. 

Some confirmation of that was made last week, when Android AOSP lead Jean-Baptiste Queru made the infamous pronouncement that Sony updating the Tablet S to ICS in 5 months is “very reasonable”. While the news of the day was generally outrage that such a long time table should be considered reasonable, the more important point was actually Queru’s explanation of why that is true:



"This is actually a very reasonable time, since under the hood Ice Cream Sandwich is quite different from Honeycomb (and upgrades from Gingerbread are likely to take longer as those differences are huge)."

The added emphasis is ours – but Queru makes it very clear that all of those wonderful features that you get when moving from Gingerbread to ICS, including much improved hardware acceleration of the UI, totally rewritten core apps, and an entirely new design aesthetic, come at the cost of increased complexity for the software engineers tasked with delivering you the updates. 


There is some irony here, in that Google released its most challenging update the same year as they announced the Android Update Alliance – a working agreement that was supposed to encourage OEMs and networks to provide updates at a brisker rate than we’d seen in the past. But that shouldn’t negate the challenge of what employees are trying to do at the Samsung, HTC, Motorola, etc. Nor is this meant as an attack against Android (though we know many of you will choose to take it that way). After all, it was recently announced that no WP7 phones will be upgraded to Windows Phone 8, and Research in Motion was never known for rapid OS updates.

Instead, it's simply a fact of the platform. You get get more choices and customization, but you're going to wait longer than for Apple (who updates itself). And Windows Phone updates can be faster due to their more uniform hardware requirements, but that can also lead to a uniform lack of an update when system requirements jump between version. So really, you just have to make the decision based on which characteristics are more important to you. And for all you Android users out there, there may be a light at the end of this tunnel – with the massive UI overhaul that started with Honeycomb and culminated with ICS, perhaps the next round of updates will have fewer changes under the hood, and we'll get speedier updates.