Tech enthusiasts kind of blew up today over the official announcement that Samsung will not be updating the Galaxy S to the newest version of Android, version 4.0, or Ice Cream Sandwich. The reaction has surprised me a lot, not because of the announcement, but that people are so surprised by this. Read on and I'll explain.
Some of Android's greatest strengths is also some of the greatest weaknesses. Google provides Android as an open source system, meaning that phone makers are free to take it and customize it at their will. The most obvious implementation of this is in the user interface, how the phone actually works. If you look at an Android phone from Samsung, one from HTC, one from Motorola, and one from Sony, the interface elements on each phone look almost nothing alike. Samsung has software called TouchWiz, HTC has Sense, Motorola has Blur, and Sony's doesn't have a name, but it is unique.
The way each of these interfaces work is that they sit on top of Android, replacing the normal look and feel. This allows each phone maker to differentiate themselves from the other, while still running the same system underneath. It might sound like a good idea in theory, but the end result has some unfortunate consequences. When Android gets updated by Google, not only does Samsung have to make that update work on their phones, but they also have to update and test their TouchWiz software with that Android update. This essentially doubles the time and effort it takes to provide an update to a phone.
The Galaxy S was announced in early 2010 running Android 2.1. Since then, it has been updated to 2.2, and most models have also been updated to 2.3. Samsung has announced that they will not be updating it to Android 4.0. They claim the reason for this is that the combination of Android 4.0 and TouchWiz will not fit onto the Galaxy S. Now, I do not believe that for one second. The part of the hard drive space that holds Android is more than big enough, and the hardware is very capable of running Android 4.0. I personally believe that the decision not to update the Galaxy S is a business decision. As I said before, to update both Android and TouchWiz for the phone would take significant time and resources for Samsung for a phone that was designed 2 years ago. Samsung has made the decision to try to push users to their newer phone, the Galaxy S II or even the Galaxy S III, which will probably be announced in March of 2012.
Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not happy with this either. I've owned a Galaxy S phone for 18 months, and it is unfortunate that it won't be getting updated again. But I am not surprised at all. could they update it? Absolutely. They have chosen not to because they simply do not want to invest the resources it would take to do so. This is unfortunate, and demonstrates everything that is wrong with Android. The openness and ability to customize it are the reasons why I love Android and prefer it over the iPhone, but situations like this are the obvious shortcoming. Users are at the mercy of a company choosing whether or not to update 2 different systems on a phone.
Now, Samsung is by no means alone in this. Sony has stated that only phones they have made in 2011 will be updated to Android 4.0. This leaves the very capable Xperia X10 out. The phones that HTC has announced they will update are all newer phones, none were made in 2010. Motorola never really releases a specific list of which phones will be updated, but in the past few Motorola phones older than a year old have received significant updates. The reason why this only seems to be a bigger deal with Samsung is because the Galaxy S was one of the first truly successful Android phones, with over 20 million sold world wide, and is still being sold today. It is a news item not because it is unexpected or news worthy, but it is a news item because of sheer quantity of devices.
So, what is the answer? There aren't many, especially for those people who are not willing or able to dive into some very advanced work on their phones, work that has the potential to render it unusable, forever. The only real answer is to only buy a phone that runs the straight Android experience, with no customizations or software running on top of it. Google has released 3 such phones now, the Nexus One, Nexus S, and the new Galaxy Nexus. These are phones that Google designs in collaboration with a hardware maker (the Nexus One was HTC, and the Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus are Samsung). While HTC and Samsung have made the hardware, Google has full control over the software. As a result, these phones run the "stock" Android experience as Google designs it, and are updated often. the Nexus S, released almost a year ago, has received at least a half dozen updates. Some of them have been small, to fix bugs, and some of them have been big, like the current upgrade to Android 4.0. My Galaxy S has received 2 updates in 18 months.
In my opinion, Google can, and should, do more to force phone manufacturers to update their phones more often, but right now the only solution is to purchase the "Google Phone," as that is the only phone on the market that is guaranteed to receive updates to Android in a timely manner for as long as the phone is physically capable of handling the update. In many ways the "Google Phone" mirror's Apple's approach with the iPhone. Phones have come out roughly once a .year and those phones are updated by Apple for as long as they are able to run the software.
So, back to the answer The real answer is the answer for anything in the consumer space and to vote with your wallet. If being guaranteed to have the latest update to Android is important to you, then the only solution is to buy a Google phone, and to not buy any phone that has a custom interface like TouchWiz on it. I like the Galaxy S, but it has reached the end of it's life, and I'm strongly considering practicing what I preach and voting with my wallet by buying the Galaxy Nexus. If all of this matters to you, you should be as well.