(Yes, the title is link bait.)
Sony Ericsson have announced that their Xperia X10 range of Android handset won't be updated to the latest version of Android. They'll be stuck on Android 2.1 with no hope for any bug fixes.
As I discussed last year in "The Future of Android - And How To Stop It" there is a fundamental tension between users, manufacturers, Mobile Networks, and Google when it comes to the Android Operating System.
First up, a common misconception...
Some Android Phones Are Too Slow For Updates
The HTC Magic - the second Android phone to be released - has been updated to 2.2 (Froyo). By any measure, the Magic is slower compared to the mighty X10 - but that shouldn't matter. My dog-eared old laptop can still receive updates for Linux. Apple's ancient iPhones still, I believe, get some bug fixes.
So, for how long should a phone be supported?
The Lifetime of a Phone
The Magic was released in mid-2009 - and it is still being actively supported 18 months later. This is important. Most smartphones (in the UK) are sold on 18 - 24 month contracts. That means the customer expects them to be supported while they are still under contract.
Given that the Magic was probably sold by Vodafone for ~6 months (including at 3rd party retailers), the consumer will expect this device to be supported at least until the beginning of 2012.
The Xperia X10 was sold in the UK from March 2010. Sony Ericsson haven't even given it a year's worth of support. Barely 10 months after release and it has been abandoned.
Even if you bought it on a 12 month contract, the day it was released, Sony Ericsson have decided you're not important any more.
The question now is, see that shiny SE Arc - do you want to buy it knowing that within a year there will be no more enhancements, no more bug fixes, no more love for you?
Old Phones Don't Die
It's rare that a phone just goes into a drawer when a customer gets an upgrade.
Let's take a look a the typical life of a mobile phone.
- 6 months sitting in a warehouse waiting until the customer can afford it
- 24 months being used on a contact
- 3 months used out of contract until a good upgrade has been found
- 3 months sat in a drawer
- 12 months given to a kid / niece / nephew who doesn't mind an old bit of kit
- Sent to the developing world where the cycle starts again.
At the very least, that's 3 - 4 years use for the average phone.
Now, you may change your phone ever 12 months whether you need to or not. Recognise that you are the exception. Most people are not rich enough to get a new phone whenever they feel like it. Most people can't ring Nokia's press department and ask for a review model.
Phones need to be supported for their lifetime - even if it is just fixing bugs.
The Community Will Fill The Gap
I am in awe of VillainRom, Cyanogen, XDA Developers and all the other Android hackers. The amount of (often unpaid) work they put in to developing custom ROMs for Android handsets is incredible. They've got the latest version of Android - with all the bells and whistles - for nearly every Android handset out there.
Surely X10 owners can just use these guys for updates?
Well, yes, with two caveats.
- Technical Know-How. It's hard for the layman to find these sites, let alone risk their warranty by invoking the command line magic needed to perform the update.
- Fragility of the Eco-System. Who tests these mods? What happens when something goes wrong? What happens when VillainRom decides he has better things to do with his time?
The community should not be treated as an unpaid help desk when a corporation decides to divest itself of all responsibility.
Android Updates Are Fundamentally Broken
If you've ever used Linux - you'll be familiar with this sort of screen.
Windows and Mac also behave in a similar fashion.
Rather than updating the entire OS - only parts of it are updated. If there is a bug in, say, the way timezones are calculate - only the timezone program needs to be updated.
If FireFox needs updating on your computer - that's all you need to update. No need to reload your entire software suite.
In some ways, Android is like this. The email, maps, and market all act as standalone apps and can be individually updated.
I think Android should go further.
We're now in a crazy situation where a critical flaw in Android SMS capabilities will be fixed - but may never reach customers' phone because manufacturers and networks have decided to no longer support a particular device.
This time it's an SMS problem - what happens when it's a serious security issue?
I suggest the following way to mitigate it.
- Google should develop, test, and release updates to core Android components - including security fixes. These should be updated directly to the Manufacturer.
- Manufacturers should do the same for their customisations (UI etc). Then release to the customer.
- Mobile Networks should be responsible for testing and releasing any radio firmware.
- If a manufacturer won't release an update, Google should do it directly.
Google needs a way to send critical updates to customers without waiting for 3rd parties to muck around. Microsoft don't wait for Dell to test a patch, and Dell don't wait for PC World to monkey around with it before it hits you - the customer.
I'm aware this approach is not perfect, and I'd be very pleased to hear any suggestions on how to make it better.
...There's Always A But
Imagine you just bought a lovely new SE Arc. A software update comes along which bricks your phone.
Who do you ring / sue?
- CarPhone Warehouse who sold you the device?
- Vodafone - to whom you pay £40 per month?
- Sony Ericsson - the manufacturers?
- Google - the developers?
Who do you think cares most about you? Who do you think can fix your fault? Who approved the update and did QA in the first place?
It all gets very messy, very quickly.
I think Android will thrive in 2011 - but it will be despite Sony Ericsson.