When Microsoft recently lifted the lid on Windows Phone 8 it caused a stir by announcing that Windows Phone 7 devices would not be upgradeable to the new version. Instead it is launching a Windows Phone 7.8 patch that brings a lot of the new interface changes to older phones, without the under the hood changes that make Windows Phone 8 so significant a product.
Not only does this mean no upgrade path beyond version 7.8 for current Windows Phone owners, but it brings into focus the whole issue of phone software fragmentation and support expectations. It isn’t just an issue for Windows Phone though; it is one of the core issues with Android as well.
In recent weeks we’ve seen news that the HTC Desire HD wouldn’t be getting an upgrade beyond its current Android 2.3 Gingerbread image (a situation repeated with HTC’s budget phones of recent years), while Sony’s 2011 range of phones are also stuck on Gingerbread. Other hugely successful phones like Samsung’s Galaxy S2 only recently received an update to Android 4 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) and even the Google owned Motorola has an update schedule showing it will be months until even new phones get ICS (while it looks like last year’s Atrix won’t get an update at all).
It gets even worse when you factor in the time it takes the telcos to actually qualify these updates for use on their networks. This can push a manufacturer’s update back months, and the smallest problem can send it back to the drawing board. Such was the case with Vodafone’s announcement of an Android 4.1 Jellybean update for the Samsung Galaxy Nexus last week, an announcement quickly retracted because the update wasn’t compliant with Australia’s emergency call requirements.
One just has to take a look at Google’s official Android version breakdown to see the end result of this fragmentation. The data used on Google’s Developer site is current to the 2nd of July, predating the launch of Jelly Bean, but it shows just how dominant older versions of the OS are. 64% of users had phones running Gingerbread which launched less than two years ago while only 11% of devices were running Ice Cream Sandwich.
Gingerbread launched in December 2010, and ICS in October 2011. So not only has ICS made a remarkably small impact in the ten months since launch, but Gingerbread has the lion’s share of active Android installs. While there are certainly phones that will make the move from Gingerbread to ICS in coming months, the vast majority of phones out there aren’t keeping up with the latest version of the OS.
It will be fascinating to see what these numbers are in a year’s time. Gingerbread and its predecessor Froyo marked the rising ascendancy of Android as a platform, and we are at the end of the two year contracts that a lot of devices would have been signed up for. One would expect that the transition to newer versions of Android will accelerate over coming months, and that the sheer dominance of Gingerbread will diminish.
What these numbers do highlight is just how few phones get updated to the latest version of an operating system. Apart from Google’s Nexus branded devices there are no guarantees of software updates, and even then the wildcard of telco influence is the ultimate determining factor as to when updates actually happen.
Even Apple, whose iOS updates are the gold standard when it comes to rolling out onto a range of devices with minimal carrier interference, cuts off support after a few years. There will always be a point at which hardware has evolved beyond the software, no matter what the OS.
Which brings us back to Windows Phone. There is no doubt that when Microsoft launched Windows Phone 7 it was following more of an iOS than an Android model of handset development. This meant tight hardware specifications and ultimately little difference between manufacturer’s devices. With the shift from the Windows CE based Phone 7 to the Windows NT based Phone 8 there is also a shift towards more hardware flexibility, which pushes the model towards the Android side of the equation.
If anything, at least Microsoft is guaranteeing that those currently using Windows Phone 7 devices will actually get an update to Windows Phone 7.8. One just has to look at the current state of Android devices to know that there is no inherent guarantee that operating system updates will happen, which in turn makes us wonder whether Microsoft’s move to clarify its situation is actually a good thing.