Samsung is taking an age to push out its Ice Cream Sandwich update for the Samsung Galaxy S2: bizarrely, several UK networks have beaten it to the punch, despite having to do more testing than Samsung itself.
That, in part, is why the Android numbers released this week are so miserable: Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich”, the latest and greatest release of Google’s mobile OS, is only running on 2.9 percent of all devices, up from 1.6 percent last month.
That’s a poor showing given that Ice Cream Sandwich first launched on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus five months ago. And granted, the delay is inevitable as manufacturers modify Android to run on different chipsets and with different skins. But there’s something else at play here: Google, and many of the prestige names in Android, appear to have given up on the budget market with Ice Cream Sandwich.
It’s half a year since Android 4.0 was first unveiled to the world, and uptake has been slow. While Asus was commendably quick to update its Transformer Android tablets, Sony chose to ship its flagship phone for 2012, the Xperia S, with Android 2.3 “Gingerbread”, and has now pushed an upgrade to late Q2 – the end of June to you and me.
This goes someway to explaining the miserable numbers for Ice Cream Sandwich, but there’s a problem awaiting down the line: without budget phones running Android 4.0 too, Google can’t hope to bring ICS to the majority of devices, as it has done with previous releases for mobiles (Android 2.3 “Gingerbread” accounts for 63.7 percent of all devices right now).
For all the Ice Cream Sandwich powered phones on show at Mobile World Congress a month ago, none of them were cheap Android phones. Not a single one. The lowest spec new Ice Cream Sandwich phone you’ll be able to buy is in fact the HTC One V – and that’ll still cost you £250.
Now, cheap Android phones might not grab headlines, but they are what made Android the most widely used smartphone OS today. If you don’t believe me, ask Strategy Analytics, which says that Samsung’s entry level Android 2.3 phone, the Galaxy Y, is selling at the same pace as the Galaxy S2. Factor in the equally cheap Galaxy Y Pro and you’re looking at a huge piece of the pie, by volume if not profits.
The problem with cheap Android phones was that until now, they were often too cheap, or simply borked by poor software skins (The Huawei Blaze, for instance, is a cracking little device, but comes loaded with a dreadful default keyboard – you can change this but many customers won’t realise it.)
Soon the problem will be that you just won’t be able to buy any – or ones at least running Android 4.0. But isn’t the point of a new software release that it gets used?
Waiting in the wings is Windows Phone: with the new release, Tango, Microsoft has given manufacturers the all clear to make Windows Phones with cheaper, less powerful components. Up first is the Nokia Lumia 610, which with an estimate SIM-free price of £160 could very quickly arrive at under £99 on Pay As You Go. And as I’ve said before, that could be an instant win for Microsoft and Nokia. Its large tiles, excellent (mandatory) keyboard and headache-free set up lend themselves perfectly to those not willing to invest money – or time – in their tech, even if Windows Phone is missing hundreds of thousands of apps.
The way things are going now, Google could very well completely cede the low-end smartphone market to Microsoft and Nokia – which, let’s not forget, ships phones on a scale that nobody else does. It’s the business equivalent of waving the white flag when the enemy hasn’t even appeared.
What’s so odd here is that it doesn’t have to be this way. There is no particular rule that Android Ice Cream Sandwich requires top end specs. It runs perfectly well on the Nexus S, a 2010 phone based on now-two year old hardware. Google itself is hazy about the minimum requirements for Ice Cream Sandwich, although its pioneers have gone so far as to say that it “theoretically should work for any 2.3 device.” Without pointless bloatware and the right keyboard by default – like, say, the stock one Google provides – that could still translate to a great experience.
But when Samsung, or even Chinese snake oil wunderkinds ZTE and Huawei don’t seem interested in using their huge economies of scale to capture this segment of the market, there’s a problem.