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Android’s busted roadmap

If speed counts in mobile operating system upgrades, Google is losing the war.

A day after Apple made the latest version of its mobile operating system, iOS 6, available for download, fully 15 per cent of the 400 million iPhones, iPads and iPod touches already sold had been upgraded. After 48 hours, it was 30 per cent, and two weeks after its Sept. 19th release, a Chitika Insights report said 60 per cent of iPhone owners were already running it. The iOS 6 take rate surpasses that of its predecessor, iOS 5, which according to website conversion provider Onswipe was on 38 per cent of iPhones a month after its September 2011 release.

Google wishes it were so lucky: almost a year after the release of Android 4.0 — also known as Ice Cream Sandwich — it says only 23.7 per cent of eligible devices have it. Version 2.3/Gingerbread, still dominates the Android landscape with 55.8 per cent market share almost two years after its release. Google's latest mobile offering, version 4.1/Jelly Bean, is on 1.8 per cent of devices.

Mobile execution lags web legacy

For Google, a company whose consistent and seamless update path for its web-based services sets the bar for the entire industry, its failure to even come close to Apple in mobile OS adoption rate is, at best, embarrassing. More worrisome is the impact it could have on Android growth, as the resulting convoluted landscape makes it difficult for developers and service providers to build sustainable business plans.

With Android compatibility still all over the map, and consumers confused over when — or even if — their devices will be eligible for upgrades, Apple's comparatively homogeneous and streamlined device/OS environment gives it a key competitive advantage. While individual hardware vendors struggle to certify device-specific builds for each new version of Android, Apple presents a unified front for both developers and consumers. Investors like it, too, as it means one larger market for essentially similar products and services, instead of a fractured one still forced to serve multiple, often incompatible older platforms.

It's Android's game to lose. An IDC's Q2 2012 report says Android owns 68.1 per cent of the global market for smartphones, up from 46.9 per cent year-over-year. This compares to 16.9 per cent for the iPhone, which slipped from 18.8 per cent in Q2 2011. Apple remains dominant on the tablet side, with its iPad capturing 68.3 per cent market share in the quarter — up from 62% the previous year — against Android's 29.3 per cent, unchanged over the year.

Over half a billion Android devices have already been activated, with 1.3 million new ones being added each day. But unlike Apple, which successfully migrates the majority of in-service devices to the latest version of its operating system within weeks, if not days, of release, Google consistently struggles to update its more diverse ecosystem of vendors, devices and standards. Apple's end-to-end control of its iOS universe allows it to move faster than Google, which must contend with each of its hardware-partner's competing visions and priorities.

A promise unfulfilled

Google's Open Handset Alliance, the umbrella group that guides Android development and deployment, has long promised to bring consistency and cost effectiveness to the mobile market. But with individual vendors adding so-called skins to differentiate the user experience, and taking months to confirm upgrade paths for already-released handsets, the group is falling far short of its initial promises of harmony.

Google and its partners may be moving more Android-based smartphones now, but against a foundation of hard-to-navigate upgrades and a heterogeneous user base, it's only a matter of time before consumers and developers alike look for more predictable platforms. Android isn't about to tank anytime soon, but a key ingredient of its possible demise shows no signs of being addressed.

Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own. carmilevy@yahoo.ca

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