OS Upgrades

techradar.gifThere’s currently some consternation by users of the Android-based Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 because it won’t be updated to Froyo (Android 2.2).

"We’re not taking the Xperia X10 further forward [in terms of upgrading to a new version of Android]," said Vautier at a briefing with TechRadar.

While this post is about Sony Ericsson, this issue is a hot topic for many phone OEMs. I first wrote about this about a year ago when I suggested that Android upgradability might itself become a differentiator for OEMs. Upgradability not only affects end users but also developers. As large numbers of older phones become upgraded, there is less need to write for older versions of an OS.

I am questioning why consumers have come to expect upgrades. I can understand the expectation of updates for bug fixes but why do consumers presume there will be upgrades for significant OS updates? I think this has come about due to Apple upgrading iPhones and due to Google rapidly creating new versions of Android. In the case of Apple, this can only go on for so long; we can already see that older iPhones are already enshewing newer features (such as multi-tasking). There must come a time when old devices won’t be able to be upgraded. In the case of Google, there will be less frequent OS updates and those that occur will be mainly for new form factors. Both Google and Apple are in their early years and it’s only a matter of time before they succumb to ‘legacy drag’ that prevents phones from being upgraded.

There was an interesting session at DroidCon last year where Sony Ericsson explained the issues involved in putting Android on their phones. The stock OS has been modified to add UI differentition. For example, on the Xperia they have modified some Android screens to make it much easier for single handed use.  It was also necessary to add in operator and regional requirements. This involved adding lots of languages for every app. An example regional requirement is that no GPS allowed in some countries. All these changes had to be tested which required significant integration, tool support and verification processes.

After an OEM has changed Android and shipped a device, Google might ship a new version of Android. For an OEM such as Sony Ericsson who has done lots of changes, it can become a huge task to add all the changes to the new OS version, especially where these changes overlap with changes Google has made to the same code. Hence the reticence to update the Xperia X10 to Froyo.

In an ideal world, Sony Ericssson would have contributed back the majority of their changes to Android that could have been switched in or out depending on the configuration. This would have meant that the next version would have already incorporated their changes. In practice they contributed back bug fixes but obviously not new functionality so as to retain their intellectual property and differentiation.
Ironically, this means that the (better?) differentiated Android devices will be harder to upgrade and probably less likely to have upgrades.