173 days. That’s how long it’s been since Samsung first pledged to update it flagship Samsung Galaxy S2 phone to Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich”, the latest and greatest version of Google’s mobile operating system.
It’s been almost six months, yet right now, some people are only just finding out when that juicy update will hit their devices. So what’s gone wrong? Allow us to examine a car crash of an example of corporate to customer communications.
Let’s be clear. The issue here is not that Samsung has taken too long to port Ice Cream Sandwich to the Galaxy S2. Apple’s iPhone has created an unfortunate benchmark to compare against, when the truth is comparing it with Android updates is not apples with apples.
Apple has just a few different devices to update when it pushes out new versions of iOS, and a unique position with the networks allowing it to send that device out at the same time globally.
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Google can’t do this. As many manufacturers as there in the Open Handset Alliance, there are even more chipsets and screen resolutions a new release of Android has to be ported to. Google can’t cover them all, and it takes time for OEMs to make sure it’s running smoothly on their own hardware. That’s the cold, hard truth, and if you need proof of this, look no further than the team of devotees behind custom Android ROM CyanogenMod, who haven’t been able to get Android 4.0 on the Galaxy S2 any faster than Samsung itself.
No, that’s not the problem. The update rollout has been a disaster because nobody knows what the hell is going on – and all the while, Samsung is selling the wonderful Galaxy Nexus, rubbing it in the faces of millions.
For months, we waited. Then Samsung started teasing us with word of the update. But not in a polished press release with a definitive date. Nope, with drips and drabs. South Korean news reports, tweets from Samsung Israel. But not a global announcement, or even a pan-European one. Not a great start.
Then, eventually, on 13 March 2012 Samsung confirmed that the Galaxy S2 Ice Cream Sandwich update would be rolling out in the UK from 19 March, with the usual qualifier that “availability of software upgrades in the UK will be dependent upon each network’s own software approvals process”.
It was then that things started to go really wrong. O2, Three and Vodafone gave prompt timings on how long it would take to approve the update and push it out: O2 and Three delivered, while Vodafone, after a few stop starts, eventually began pushing it out to customers who bought a Galaxy S2 through them.
But the update for SIM-free phones not sold by an operator? Customers who bought those were left in limbo. The week of March 19th came and went. In a bizarre reversal, Samsung somehow took longer to test the update and roll it out than the networks did.
Only yesterday (17 April) did Samsung finally confirm that the SIM-free update was rolling out, and only then hours after it was denying it was (Credit has to go to CNET’s Natasha Lomas, who has pursued Samsung relentlessly on this). T-Mobile and Orange meanwhile have still to push out their updates for the Galaxy S2.
This is not the way things usually work – typically, SIM-free smartphones get updates first because the manufacturer does its own testing and that’s that – and inevitably it’s led to confused customers in forums, and even the comments section of our coverage of the debacle.
For one thing, customers who bought a Samsung Galaxy S2 through a retailer like Phones4U, but with a network contract, technically landed SIM-free devices. But they didn’t know that, Samsung didn’t tell them, and nor did their retailer.
And not all SIM-free devices are born equal, either. Some Carphone Warehouse Galaxy S2 phones are CPW branded and will require the retailer to push out its own update. “Since Carphone Warehouse never bothered releasing the 2.3.6 version of Gingerbread that was available for unbranded Samsung phone, I wouldn’t hold your breath about ICS,” says frustrated commenter Gtspaulding.
“Needless to say, I shan’t be buying a phone with a Carphone Warehouse brand again. They’re clearly unable to offer decent technical support.”
That’s as maybe, but the real culprit here is Samsung, which has failed to evolve its customer communications as the Galaxy S line has turned into a prestige brand second only to the iPhone. Why should any customers be left unclear as to what’s going on? Samsung shouldn’t have to wait for journalists to pester its PR agencies to tell people what’s going on. It should want to tell its valued customers what’s going on, especially after shafting original Galaxy S owners by not updating those phones likewise.
So what’s to be done? There’s probably no saving huge mega networks like Everything Everywhere dropping the ball. Let’s be honest, networks the size of T-Mobile and Orange will find a way to make a hash of things. But Samsung needs to look long and hard at how it treats its existing customers, as well as how it entices new ones with amazing new phones.
Samsung needs to get its act together when it comes to communicating the update. Have a consistent portal through which information is relayed. Do it for every country. Keep it updated. Motorola actually does this – it’s just usually incredibly grim reading.
There’s another solution to consider too. Post updates early, and make them available solely through a website. Before they’re finished, even. Give early adopters, loud-mouthed evangelists, early beta versions, and they’ll shut up. Sony and HTC have started doing this. Huawei has pledged to for its new Ascend G300 phone.
That approach also solves another problem: the massive user interface change Ice Cream Sandwich brings. The Galaxy S2 update has been criticised for stripping out much of what Google added in Android 4.0, but as blogger John Gruber has pointed out, such a change would be baffling to many customers. But if the update is one you have to actively seek out on Samsung’s website, well, that changes the audience entirely.
It’s too late for the Samsung Galaxy S2, but something Samsung needs to consider for its next flagship, whenever Jellybean comes along. As Nokia’s Stephen Elop says, it’s a “war of ecosystems” nows, and Samsung needs to do all it can to keep people in its side as future customers.
Samsung was contacted for comment for this article, and issued the following boiler plate statement:
“Samsung UK has been working as hard as possible over the last few weeks to get Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) rolled out to all our Galaxy S II customers. We can confirm that ‘Open Market’ and all network upgrades are now complete except for Orange and T-Mobile which will follow as soon as possible, pending software testing and approvals. Thanks again for your patience.”