If you look at the sales figures, you are tempted to say that Google’s Android OS is trouncing the iPhone. But there’s a lot to be said about those figures and how they can be interpreted. Despite the ubiquity of Android handsets, there’s that incredible amount of fragmentation — I suppose Google would rather call it it diversity — that can cause troubles for users of those products. The same problem afflicts Android powered tablets, but since sales are pathetic — other than the Amazon Kindle Fire, which uses a tricked out version of Android — it doesn’t really matter.
Thanks to a link from one of our regular readers, I learned that Google has actually admitted to the problem, although they are predictably giving a positive spin on something that otherwise ought to be a huge negative. The link to an AOL Daily Finance report on the situation is posted over at our community forum, in case you want to check it out and comment further.
The most damaging bit of information is the fact that Google’s latest and greatest OS, version 4 Ice Cream Sandwich is, as of this week, only available on 3.3% of the mobile handsets measured in that survey. The first release came out last October, roughly in the same timeframe as Apple’s iOS 5 and the iPhone 4s. The current ICS version is 4.0.4, released at the end of March.
Can you imagine that?
What’s the most popular Android OS? Version 2.3.x Gingerbread, released in December 2010, which is found on roughly two-thirds of Android smartphone users.
Now to put this in perspective, the various versions of iOS 5 are in use on anywhere from 75% to 80% of Apple’s mobile gadgets, based on two independent surveys. It’s clear that Apple has discovered the incredible secret of reliably pushing OS updates to the highest number of customers.
But it’s not really a secret at all. Apple feeds updates directly. Beginning with iOS 5, you don’t even have to tether your iPhone or iPad to a Mac or PC running iTunes. The cloud-based update process can be done directly on these devices. In 10 or 15 minutes or so, maybe longer if you have a slower broadband connection, the download is installed and your Apple mobile gadget is restarted. Update problems are few and far between.
Google’s problem is that they’ve handed off the upgrade process to their licensees. It’s up to the handset maker to test those updates with their own hardware — and they may have dozens of models to configure — and then add their special customizations. The carriers also get into the act with their own proprietary junkware. When all is said and done, most Android gear doesn’t even run the latest OS, and customers stand little or no chance of getting those updates.
Obviously, Android developers are left in a touchy situation. If their apps are commercial, they want to cater to the largest possible audience to earn the most profits, even if that audience is using a version of Android that’s 16 months old. What this also means is that support for the latest and greatest features may be little to none. I mean, it’s hard enough just to support all sorts of different hardware configurations, but being forced to also limit themselves to older OS versions has to be discouraging.
But the larger problem is security. From time to time, Apple has released security fixes for the iOS. Not many, because apps are carefully curated, and they won’t approve software with the potential for malware infection. But that doesn’t mean the OS doesn’t have to be shored up from time to time to plug a security leak.
Now consider the plight of the owner of Android hardware. OS feature and performance updates may not be so serious, but what about a security fix? Remember, the Android Market isn’t curated in the same way as Apple. Just about anything can get on there, and apps will only be removed after someone discovers a problem. That may come too late for customers who have already downloaded the offending apps. Indeed, there’s actually a market for security software on Android because it’s open season for Internet criminals to spread their misery.
But if the handset maker and the wireless carrier don’t care, how do customers cope? Well, I suppose most people who aren’t running lots of apps — and then only the more popular, tried and proven stuff — probably won’t notice. They will go about their business and probably not have to confront any security issues. That, however, doesn’t mean a major malware outbreak won’t occur that will require a major OS fix, rather than just updating a security app. How does Google reassure users of their product that they will be safe?
Unfortunately, if you own an Android smartphone, you’re not Google’s customer. You may not even be regarded as a customer of the handset maker, who simply sells their stuff to wireless carriers and washes their hands of the situation. Their only interest is in selling new handsets when your current wireless contract is up.
When you buy an iPhone, you are Apple’s customer. Apple provides the support, and Apple wants your repeat business, and will make sure you are able to run the latest and greatest iOS that your iPhone or iPad supports. It makes developers happy, of course, to have a predictable audience for their products, and that’s also why Apple’s mobile gear gets the highest praise from customers.
In turn, it’s been reported that Google earns less money from Android than from the iOS. Isn’t that the unkindest cut of all?