Perhaps the biggest story to come out of Google I/O back in May 2011 was the Android Update Alliance. The Android Update Alliance consisted of all the big players in the Android industry, encompassing all US carriers and handset makers. The Alliance promised that for every device released after Google I/O, it would see updates to the latest version of Android for at least 18 months after launch.
Back at Google I/O, the Update Alliance promised that it would release details of the Alliance in the few weeks after the conference. It’s been a little over 7 months now, and we still have no clue whether the Alliance actually exists or what it means for device updates. Worse, carriers and handset makers can’t actually tell us if devices released this year will ever see Android 4.0.
Jamie Lendino of PC Mag attempted to take matters into his own hands, and contacted representatives at all of the major US companies who volunteered to be in the Update Alliance. What he found was not too reassuring, as most of the carriers and handset makers refused to address whether or not specific devices would be upgraded to Ice Cream Sandwich. Even more worrisome, most companies also refused to address the commitment they made to the Android Update Alliance at Google I/O.
Though the Update Alliance was a great idea in theory, it is certainly near impossible to implement for Android. Microsoft has been able to bring the latest version of its Windows Phone operating system to devices because the software is mandated by Microsoft; OEMs simply aren’t allowed to make customizations to the software, and the updates come directly from Microsoft. Apple has been able to keep iOS devices up to date because they are both the software and handset maker; it’s easy to push software updates you’ve made to devices that you’ve also made. Google doesn’t make its own devices (yet) and allows OEMs to heavily customize the Android software, sometimes to the point where many people don’t know a device is even running Android (ahem, Kindle Fire).
In short, this heavy customization of Android made it so that Google will have its work cut out for it if the Update Alliance is ever going to become a reality. Assuming Google will continue to allow such a wide variety of customizations of its Android software, Google will need to work more closely with handset makers earlier in the process to ensure that handset makers are ready to go with their Android UI overlays when Google releases the latest and greatest version of Android. Otherwise, Android will have to become a bit less open and Google will have to implement tighter controls over its operating system.
Regardless, if Google is fully committed to the openness of Android and allows Android OEMs to customize the Android experience, it will need to do something to ensure all devices receive upgrades for the life of the device, and in a timely fashion to boot. How Google figures that out is anyone’s guess, but here’s hoping the Update Alliance was more than just hot air.