Posted by: Frank | November 3, 2009

Sprint Not Providing OTA Updates for Android

Last week I wrote about my concerns with how updates to Android are being tied to mobile providers, and today I read that Sprint is going against the grain of previous Android upgrades by apparently requiring connections to a desktop PC rather than using the over the air (OTA) model. Sprint’s shunning of OTA makes little sense to me, because while I am sure they will claim concerns with the impact to their network, T-Mobile has had no problems releasing major upgrades to Android over their network.

Here is the bottom line about why I am concerned about how Android is updated. In my opinion, a key differentiator between mobile operating systems is how often they are updated. The mobile space is rapidly evolving and releasing updates shows that the operating system is being kept up to date. Rapid updates also provides room for handling imperfections. I can tolerate problems and bugs if I know that an update that fixes that problem is not far away. Contrast this situation to Windows Mobile where it can literally be years between updates meaning you are going to have to live with those imperfections much longer. Guess what, people are not going to wait, they are going to move on.

Apple set this bar with the iPhone by providing a way to quickly distribute updates to the iPhone OS, and most important, enable users to install those upgrades without requiring that the phone be completely rebuilt. (Note here that my intent is not to say that OTA updates is better than side loading, my concern is with the inconsistencies in method and time between the carriers with distributing these updates.) If an upgrade is not going to wipe out all my apps and data, I have no problem if Apple or Google release updates every month or every week as there is very little impact to me as a user. In contrast, Windows Mobile upgrades have always been destructive, meaning that after the upgrade users have to restore or reinstall applications and data. That much work means users are not going to tolerate frequent updates, but it also means that there is no way to constantly evolve the phone software.

Software evolution is key in the mobile space right now because it means you can release new features in smaller chunks more quickly. Imagine how much better Windows Mobile would be if new features were added to Windows Mobile once a quarter over the next year rather than having to wait an entire year to get an entire boat load of functionality! In fact, there would be no complaints about why it is taking so long to get to Windows Mobile 7.

It is becoming evident that the only way for the mobile OS/phone provider to manage the upgrade process is to follow the Apple model of partnering with only one carrier. Without multiple carriers there is no need to deal with competing carriers who want to differentiate how they sell the same product by tweaking the upgrade process. This is a double edge sword because it means that if I want an iPhone I have to switch to AT&T, but the benefit is that the upgrade process is better managed and perhaps more frequent.

I truly believe that by sticking to one carrier Apple is limiting the market for the iPhone. I think the majority of users will not switch from their carrier to another just for a phone, and if there were a Verizon iPhone, there would be even more iPhones in the market. At the same time, I think it is becoming obvious in the Android space that the carriers all want to do their own thing and therefore the multiple carrier model means inconsistencies in how your product is presented and managed in the market. For a mobile handset provider that may be the worse thing to happen than limiting the size of your potential market.  Of course, it’s worth noting that Google is not a handset provider, they are a mobile OS provider, but I think the same concerns apply.

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