Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Gingerbread arrives, but where next for Android?

It's never been clear whether FOTA [Firmware Over The Air] updates would be available to Android users who had let their data contract lapse and who had opted for a WiFi only approach. However it appears that if the Android device is ready for updates then it may, just may, arrive over the air by WiFi.
Many people have smartphones today, and Android has been the choice for a great proportion of those. However for those travelling abroad the option of data roaming is often cost prohibitive, while signing up for a local data contract is troublesome. So there existed uncertainty as to whether that elusive upgrade from Eclair to Froyo, or Froyo to Gingerbread might arrive.

For some Android users, even those with data contracts, there is still a long wait for Android 2.2, otherwise known as Froyo. Google's Nexus One was released in early 2010 with Android 2.1 Eclair built in. After a few months Android 2.2 Froyo was released and the Nexus became the first to receive this update with further additional updates continuing until December. 

Launch of Gingerbread

With the launch of the Nexus S, Google's next flagship phone made by Samsung, and its much lauded Gingerbread OS, there was some excitement amongst Nexus users that they too might be the first to receive this update. But it has taken a lot longer than first anticipated.

There were reports that Gingerbread, or Android 2.3, was arriving on some devices as early as February this year. For many users the wait has been very long indeed. Currently most Android devices are still stuck on Android 2.2 Froyo which leads the way with a 59.4% share. However that figure has fallen in the last few weeks as some phones receive a version of Gingerbread. That is not to say there are not but a few Android users still stuck in the ark. Around 17% of users are still using Android 2.1 Eclair according to AndroidCentral. And although a tiny proportion of all Android users, there exists a small pocket of smartphone users still stuck with 1.5 (Cupcake) and 1.6 (Donut). For the latter group the issue is down to compatibility since the first devices to hit the market are unable to upgrade to later versions. 

FOTA updates via WiFi

Those with more modern devices are however seeing the prompt message asking them to install new firmware. And for some there is the added pleasant surprise as it comes over a WiFi connection. Not having a data plan while in China, it was expected that any FOTA upgrade would not arrive until returning to the UK. However, one morning last week the Nexus One displayed the prompt to install new updates. Seemingly the FOTA system works via WiFi too since the only SIM installed was a local China Mobile SIM without a data contract.

There was, and always is, a feeling of nervousness and excitement at installing such updates. There is the concern that things won't work as well afterwards. For example there was much talk that those who had received Gingerbread some months back had experienced issues with the WiFi connection. Having a Chinese SIM in the device also raised a doubt. Would the update be China-centric? Many apps on the Android Market are not available in China and Google apply regional restrictions and other regional based aspects onto its products. A browser may often display in the local language for instance. 

Gingerbread user base growing

However after a tense couple of minutes the upgrade had installed and one more Android device had joined a growing number of others with Gingerbread. In fact Android 2.3 Gingerbread (Android 2.3, 2.3.2, 2.3.3 and 2.3.4) has doubled to 18.6% in the last month alone.

It is likely that some users will have to upgrade their actual device if the want to stay in front. HTC have admitted that Gingerbread may not install on some of its most recent devices, and even where is does it may wipe some user data from the device [CNET]. One reason for such issues is the limited memory in many devices. Even the Nexus One with the advantage of expandable memory in the form of an SD card has limits. With many heavy apps unable to be transferred to the SD card it does not take long before the phone runs short of the 190 MB of memory set aside for apps. Of particular issue are apps like Adobe Flash Player which is nearly 12 MB, the Facebook app which eats up over 7 MB and Google Maps which takes up a whopping 11.43 MB. Even Google's Music app takes up a massive 7 MB. Even the Nexus S with greater internal storage, of around 16 GB, it does not have SD card support. Where memory is all in the world of smartphones, this is by far the biggest issue for users. App developers, including Google themselves, should take note of this. 


So are the updates worth it. For some the simple answer is yes. Froyo was certainly better than its predecessors, giving proper Flash video support and WiFi tethering. Gingerbread's advantages are less clear cut, and for some devices makes little difference. The NFC [Near Field Communication] support is only compatible with the Nexus S at this time and will, if it takes of, facilitate the use of the phone as a virtual wallet. The SIP [Session Initiation Protocol] support is good in itself, but it is unlikely to be used by the vast proportion of users. In fact reviews so far suggest its functionality is relatively limited [OnSip / ProductiveOrganizer]. While SIP is popular in some regions, most people tend to gravitate to VOIP services such as Skype which is supported already on Android devices.

There is also support for a front-facing camera for video calling. However since only the Nexus S has this at present it is another redundant feature in most devices. Many of the features which came with Gingerbread were aesthetic. User interface elements, such as the notification bar, turned from grey to black, in a bid to avoid screen burn-in and increase battery life, if only marginally. The on-screen keyboard gained a number shortcuts across the top, and a cursor to better select and copy text, this was the best and most obvious benefit of the update.

Unclear future

While the new Google tablets are being rolled out with Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) with an 'Ice Cream Sandwich' to come, the future of updates for the Android smartphone is not quite clear. The Nexus S has received 2.3.5, which brought improved network performance for the Nexus S 4G, but there are no obvious routes where the little green robot is going next. NFC may prove more useful as more devices incorporate this technology and outlets adopt it. Indeed Google are putting a lot of effort into promoting their Google Wallet, though it is mainly confined to the US for now. Perhaps Android has gone as far as it can until Google and mobile phone developers decide upon the next generation of smartphones.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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