Can Android heroes prevail wielding old OSes?
By David BRAUE
Here's a great marketing idea when you're designing your next smartphone: pack in killer specs like 1080p recording, a sharp 4.3-inch screen and a sweet 12 megapixel camera – and then blow the whole thing by bundling a mobile operating system that was released 16 months ago and is way behind the feature curve.
Well, on paper at least: Google's Android v2.3 'Gingerbread' version bowed on 6 December 2010 while v2.3.7, on which Sony's new Xperia S phone is based, appeared in the last quarter of 2011. So, technically, the whole thing isn't 16 months old. However, given that a major new release of Android has been available for basically the same length of time, it's stunning that Sony would decide to base its new hero phone – and the first phone it has released since breaking from its Ericsson joint venture a little while back – on an outdated operating system.
The Xperia S has gotten good reviews, but on paper this specification seems like a point of weakness. After all: the other phone reviewers are drooling about this week, the HTC One X, managed to incorporate the new Android v4.0 'Ice Cream Sandwich' (ICS) – so why couldn't Sony? Putting them head to head shows operating-system versions to be a major point of difference.
If all this seems like a petty argument, that may be because it is. After all, the key to either of these phones is the experience they provide – and not some misplaced notion of technological currency or obsolescence. And Sony has of course done extensive customisation to the 2.3.7 release, and there's significant lead time in testing and so on, so it's to be expected that porting these additions to ICS will take a while.
It may make sense to you and me, but to the casual buyer I bet the notation that the Xperia S is running an older operating system than the One X won't go unnoticed. It would be like trying to sell someone a computer running Windows Vista – which is not a million miles removed from Windows 7, but definitely doesn't perform the same.
Will this automatically give a leg up to HTC? Not necessarily: Sony has significant muscle behind it, and a global network of partners who will be keen to promote the slick device no matter what it's running under the hood.
And yet this technological decision highlights what continues to be a major issue in the Android ecosystem – and, by extension, the mobile ecosystem in general. And that is, simply, that each new version changes things dramatically. Just as each new release of Firefox breaks third-party add-ons all over again (and makes me less and less inclined to stick with the platform out of what I admit has become blind faith) – and as each new release of Mac OS X seems to require small updates to your major applications – every time Android gets a new version it sends third parties packing to keep up.
This is not only discouraging for potential fans of the operating system, but it's making life difficult for companies that might otherwise want to allow Android devices onto the office network. Version proliferation is the bane of consistent management, yet Google's own figures show that the rapid evolution of Android has left many residual versions out there. The company is currently tracking eight different smartphone versions of Android plus three versions of the tablet-only 'Honeycomb' v3.x.
Fully 30% of phones in the market are running Android 2.2 'Froyo' or earlier, meaning they're running an OS that was – point-point upgrades aside – released in the first half of 2010. That's two years behind the smartphone curve, back at a time when the iPhone 3GS represented Apple's state-of-the-art.
Sure, Sony had its reasons for going back to the future – and I'm not sure if the OS version will impact its sales as much as its actual performance. But if we are to accept that ICS represents a baseline for the future, then shouldn't we also expect that it quickly becomes standard-issue in Android phones released this year? Anything less, and it's hard to take expectations to support BYO device strategies with anything resembling seriousness. Consistency will be king here, and Android will start earning its keep when it stops changing its outfit so often.
|Subscribe to Hydrapinion|