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Android's Ice Cream Sandwich update and why it takes so long

Android's Ice Cream Sandwich update and why it takes so long

Google's Android platform has a new version, but when will your phone receive it?

We explain how and why Android updates take so long to be released.

Samsung Galaxy Nexus review
Top rated Android phones: January 2012

In October last year, Google unveiled its latest Android software, dubbed 4.0 and better known by it's codename "Ice Cream Sandwich". In case you didn't know, Google likes to call each major revision of Android after a delicious desert. Previous versions have been called Honeycomb, Gingerbread, Froyo (short for Frozen Yogurt), Eclair, Cupcake and Donut.

The latest software version, Ice Cream Sandwich, is widely regarded as Google's best yet. It adds a number of new features (yes, like every software update does) but it completely transforms the look and feel of the user interface, which in my opinion is the best aspect of the update. We've used Ice Cream Sandwich extensively on two devices — the Samsung Galaxy Nexus smartphone, where is the software is included out of the box, and the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime tablet, where it is available as an over-the-air update. On both devices, the software represents a significant leap forward over previous versions.

The problem with Android updates, however, is that it means an agonising wait for both device manufacturers and carriers to push out the update to smartphones that are already on the market. Take a HTC phone sold by Telstra, for example. HTC manufacturers the phone, but the software is provided by Google and the phone runs on the Telstra network. Any software update needs to be tested by HTC first to ensure compatibility with its hardware. HTC will then release the update to the carriers (Telstra, Optus, Vodafone) where each will check and test the software to ensure all works well. Only then can the update be released to consumers. If you own a Samsung Galaxy S II on Optus, for example, you might receive the latest software update earlier or later than somebody with the same phone on the Vodafone network.

The whole update process is fragmented. It is long and tiring due to the multiple parties that need to come to the table. There are clearly too many steps involved for an Android update to go through before it can be officially released. Some older Android phones may not even receive the update: manufacturers update each model on a case by case basis and whether or not a phone will receive the latest update depends on its technical capabilities and its stage in the product life cycle.

Apple has none of these issues with the iPhone because a) it produces both the hardware and the software for the iPhone, and b) because all software versions are the same regardless of carrier. On Android phones, carriers often slightly alter the software to include specific apps or settings. As an example, a Telstra Android phone will usually come pre-loaded with apps to access the telco's services like Mobile Foxtel. Apple doesn't allow this software tweaking on the iPhone so it can push out updates simultaneously, regardless of carrier.

In the coming days, we'll let you know which Android phones have been promised the Ice Cream Sandwich update from all the big manufacturers. We'll also try to provide a rough time frame as to when your phone can expect to receive the update.


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