Frustrations grow over Ice Cream Sandwich's sluggish rollout

Peggy Albright

Just seven percent of Android devices on the market are running Android 4.0, the latest version of the operating system also known as Ice Cream Sandwich. The lack of market penetration is frustrating developers who want to take advantage of various features offered by the new release. The situation makes it difficult for developers to justify committing time and financial resources to work with the technology, and it stifles their potential opportunities to succeed in the new business environment that Android 4.0 is supposed to create.

Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) introduced Android 4.0 in May 2011 and made the SDK available to developers in October. The technology is considered a very important advancement for Android because it delivers the tablet-optimized innovations introduced in Google's Android 3.0 Honeycomb update to all devices. Version 4.0 can run across all devices, regardless of screen size.

Developers always need and appreciate having access to development tools in advance of a platform's launch because the tools give them time to learn the new technology, experiment with it and create new applications. But it has been half a year now and developers see very little market for Android 4.0 apps.

Only a few new handset models are equipped with the new technology. Recently HTC began shipping its HTC One series smartphones that are preloaded with Android 4.0 and the Samsung Galaxy Nexus comes with Android 4.0.

Manufacturers are announcing schedules for upgrading devices that are already on the market, but this is taking more time than anyone expected. HTC and Samsung have each identified more than a dozen Android devices that will be upgraded to Android 4.0. Sony Mobile has begun upgrading all of its 2011 smartphone products and Motorola Mobility (NYSE:MMI) has published a long list of product upgrades that are under way. Many of the upgrades from these companies will become available throughout the summer and into the second half of the year.

There are exceptions to many manufacturers' upgrade strategies, however, because not all devices on the market can accommodate the new code. Sony Mobile, for example, will not upgrade the Xperia Play gaming smartphone to run Android 4.0, citing performance issues with game applications. Motorola is skipping the upgrade for many of its Android devices, saying that in those particular cases the handsets will not benefit from it.

There are many reasons for the slow release of these updates. For example, many manufacturers have customized their Android implementations with an overlay to differentiate the user interface, and it takes additional effort to accomplish the upgrade when overlays are involved. Also, given Android's rapid growth and market expansion, manufacturers likely need to convert a greater number of devices compared to earlier upgrades. Chances are that they're also working with more operator partners than before, and since each upgrade must also be certified by the applicable operator networks, this can add time to an upgrade process.

The various technical considerations that make Android 4.0 suitable on some devices, but not all, will also create a new fragmentation issue in Android. The research firm CCS Insight has noted that hardware requirements for version 4.0, particularly the need for increased memory, prevent the updating of some devices that are in the market. The hardware requirements also make Android 4.0 better suited to higher-end devices than lower-end smartphones, the firm said. It expects that this differentiation will essentially separate the Android platform into low- and high-end segments.

Developers have already voiced their frustration with the Android 4.0 delays and the various fragmentation issues it introduces will not make their development work or business decisions any easier. To make things even more complicated, Google is expected to introduce Android 5.0, a.k.a. Jelly Bean, later this month.

Certainly, Android developers have demonstrated resilience in working with Android and they've also articulated their commitment to the platform. A recent Strategy Analytics study found, for example, that more developers use Android as their primary development platform than any other OS. In the coming months they'll need to take particular care to decide which user base they're targeting with their apps and decide which devices and Android features, 4.0 or otherwise, will best achieve their goals.--Peggy