The Hills Are Greener: Software Upgrades and Ethics

The Hills Are Greener: Software Upgrades and Ethics

Feb 13, 2012

Is it ethical for an Android phone manufacturer to hold back a later software update in favor of their own software? This was a question on my mind when I was upgrading my Samsung Captivate to Ice Cream Sandwich recently. Samsung has ICS developed for the Galaxy S line of phones, and have source code released. It can be compiled and works perfectly fine on the phone – there are multiple ICS roms available. The reason it’s not going to be officially released? Samsung can’t put TouchWiz on it. This appears to be the truth – there’s only about 6 megabytes of ROM space left after installing it.

This just seems wrong. After all, Samsung really just wants to promote TouchWiz, their customized Android experience, not give users the latest version of Android. With most apps supporting the latest release, Gingerbread, this means that the outdated OS shouldn’t be a problem, and the hardware should be outdated well before the OS is an issue. However, maybe this is more innocuous than it seems. Maybe they honestly believe that they provide a superior experience to stock Android, and don’t want to release an OS version without it. Anecdotally, advanced users seem to reject TouchWiz en masse – many custom roms exclude it entirely. Plus, even regular users don’t get the choice to decide which they prefer: stock Android or TouchWiz Android.

In fact, I wonder if the constant re-skinning and re-developing of Android is to blame for the myriad of issues with Android hardware. Despite Android having a stock experience to go on as well, there’s still so many other alternate software implementations. Based on this Engadget article on the launch of the Motorola Atrix, minor hardware and software implementations require massive new amounts of testing. Even new firmware upgrades require extra testing. This is probably a good thing for users, but it slows down the process of updates so much that it’s no wonder that users are constantly left behind thanks to all the bureaucracy. With so many phones to develop and test, is there any wonder that there are so few truly great Android phones?

Apple may have the right idea here with the iPhone. Focus on a limited number of models – their lower-end models are already developed, and they release one new phone a year – and really only redesign it every other year. That, and their control of the software experience, instead of having to essentially play to the carrier’s whims, makes for an easier software update experience. Users can reasonably expect their phone to last them for their contracts, whereas Android phones are outdated from the day they go on sale. It just does not need to be this way. The carriers and manufacturers need to streamline the hardware and software development process, and not be afraid to keep their users happy, even if that means ditching the customized experience when necessary.

Carter Dotson
Carter Dotson, editor of Android Rundown, has been covering Android since late 2010, and the mobile industry as a whole since 2009. Originally from Texas, he has recently moved to Chicago. He loves both iOS and Android for what they are - we can all get along!
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