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What is the most effective way for me to end up with the most consumer-friendly result when purchasing an Android phone?
August 25, 2010 10:26 AM   Subscribe

What is the most consumer-friendly Android phone? How does the relationship between Google, phone developers, and carriers work?

Help me understand the relationship between Google, cell phone manufacturers and U.S. cellular carriers* with regards to Android so that I can make educated purchasing decisions.

This question results from the news that Sprint is going to restrict the Android 2.2 update to only their newer phones, thus our Samsung Moment was a bad purchase because it will be stuck on Android 2.1, even though the hardware seems to support 2.2.

Specifically, I don't understand how the following work:

Who is buying Android OS from Google, the manufacturer or the carrier?

What results in the different capabilities between carriers and manufacturers? The same (rebranded) phone on different carriers may include different features. Whose decision is this, and to what extent can the differences be reduced or eliminated?

To what extent are manufacturers allowed to modify Android and remove base features, like tethering? What about the ability of carrier to do the same? Would a carrier dictate its requirements to a manufacturer, or to Google directly?

When Google develops a new update, who decides which phones are eligible for the update (besides meeting hardware requirements), and who controls that process? Are the updates publicly available to consumers for direct installation?

Which phones would be able to be re-loaded with the most-capable version of Android, and likely be able to handle updates for the longest period of time? Are any Android phones friendly to unofficial software being loaded while retaining the ability to be activated for service?

* Compared to something I do understand, like the relationship between a motherboard manufacturer, Dell, and Microsoft: where Dell cannot control what updates Microsoft makes available, nor can Dell dictate to the consumer to use a certain version of Windows, or any certain OS at all.
posted by odinsdream to Technology (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
No one "buys" Android. Its an open-source product. They can sign with Google into a contract to allow Market access and Google Apps. They can also choose to be members of the Open Handset Alliance. Or they can choose to be neither and just release an Android product how they see fit.

The carrier buys the phone from the manufacturer, generally.

To what extent are manufacturers allowed to modify Android and remove base features, like tethering?


They can do whatever they want, unless they sign with Google for access to Market and Google apps. At that point there are some requirements, but I don't think they are public. Google doesn't dictate things like tethering, from what I understand.

Compared to something I do understand, like the relationship between a motherboard manufacturer, Dell, and Microsoft

These are two very, very different industries. PC OEMs don't provide a carrier service or subsidize the product. They just sell product.

Android is a lot like a Linux distribution. A lot of people just use the popular distribution with Google support. Others just roll their own. The difference here is that on a computer, you have root access so you can change whatever you like, but the end user cannot. So owning an Android phone is a lot like having a computer at work. Your IT department controls it and they decide what can be done with it. You're just the user and as such your experience and rights are managed.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:43 AM on August 25, 2010


Which phones would be able to be re-loaded with the most-capable version of Android, and likely be able to handle updates for the longest period of time?

That's difficult to say, if not impossoble. The Nexus One is phone most attached to google, but its hardware is getting old and I'd rather have a rooted EVO.

Are any Android phones friendly to unofficial software being loaded while retaining the ability to be activated for service?

Most are rootable, but you'll need to do some research on your own to see if the specific model you want is. My understanding is that Verizon is very hostile to rooting now and has "Tivo-ized" their newer hardware to only accept Verizon signed ROMs. There's no shortage of ROMs for the EVO.


When Google develops a new update, who decides which phones are eligible for the update (besides meeting hardware requirements), and who controls that process?


I'm sure this varies per carrier or per product group per company. There's no committee of upgrade experts asking for feedback from users. Carriers have a lot of freedom. They can choose to never update if they wish and still be in Google's good graces.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:48 AM on August 25, 2010


How does the relationship between Google, phone developers, and carriers work?
Poorly.
Who is buying Android OS from Google, the manufacturer or the carrier?
Android is free and open-source, which allows any carrier/manufacturer to download it and customize it for their devices as they see fit. This means that several manufacturers add extra functionality or applications to their phones that are not available to the Android community as a whole. There is no purchasing involved.
What results in the different capabilities between carriers and manufacturers? The same (rebranded) phone on different carriers may include different features. Whose decision is this, and to what extent can the differences be reduced or eliminated?

Examples? Some features require additional network infrastructure on behalf of the carrier, although my impression was that (apart from hardware differences), most Android devices had more or less the same capabilities. Tethering is an example that requires extra network infrastructure (and a carrier who will allow it in their terms of service -- most don't unless you pony up an additional fee)
When Google develops a new update, who decides which phones are eligible for the update (besides meeting hardware requirements), and who controls that process? Are the updates publicly available to consumers for direct installation?
This is where it gets messy, and is a huge point of contention with Android users. Google is working to separate the "core" OS from the apps contained within it, so that updates can be done incrementally across all types of devices. However, Google usually will release the "core" operating system to the phone companies and to the public. The phone manufacturers then pick up the ball, and make sure their "enhancements" (ie. HTC's Sense UI) and hardware-specific modifications to the core OS are compatible with the update. Android's a fairly young operating system, and has undergone some fairly major architectural changes over the past few releases, so this can be something of a big deal. From there, the carrier takes the update and makes sure its customizations (ie. the Verizon crap-apps) are also compatible, and prepares the update for distribution across their network, and the tech-support onslaught that is sure to accompany any upgrade.

If the phone manufacturer doesn't want to release an update, you may be out of luck. However, Android's open-source nature allows for independent (and hobbyist) developers to port the new OS to older hardware. I'm running Android 2.2 Froyo on my Droid Incredible, despite the fact that HTC or Verizon have thus far failed to provide an update of their own.

Apparently, Google have realized that this is dumb, and are working on streamlining things for their users, as it's been enabling the phone companies to be up to their old dirty tricks.
Which phones would be able to be re-loaded with the most-capable version of Android, and likely be able to handle updates for the longest period of time? Are any Android phones friendly to unofficial software being loaded while retaining the ability to be activated for service?
Right now, AFAIK, most phones currently on the market have fairly similar processor/memory specs, so I wouldn't be too worried about this. Motorola's arguably been doing the best job of communicating with their customers about updates, for whatever that's worth (this was originally not the case, so there may be blog posts, etc. saying the contrary).
posted by schmod at 10:51 AM on August 25, 2010


What results in the different capabilities between carriers and manufacturers? The same (rebranded) phone on different carriers may include different features. Whose decision is this, and to what extent can the differences be reduced or eliminated?

The basic underlying issue that you are seeing here is that carriers have a huge amount of sway in what phones get manufactured and what features those phones have. Even for smartphones, a lot of the business of mobile phones is giving away the razor to sell the blades, but in this case the companies that sell the razors (phones) and blades (service plans) are different.

Let's say Carrier X wants a smartphone with Android on it so they can sell expensive data plans, and they make a deal with Manufacturer Y that they will order millions of Android units to push in their stores with the features they want, and pay Manufacturer Y a large percentage of the actual cost so that the customer gets them for relatively cheap. Manufacturer Y has to go along with this plan, because if Carrier Y is running commercials for some other product and heavily discounting the price of it, why would Carrier Y's customers buy their more expensive and product that nobody has heard of?

The end result is that if a carrier doesn't want products that tether, or wants to keep newer software on newer hardware only to make the new hardware more attractive, they tell the manufacturer and the manufacturer listens. Otherwise the product doesn't get made, because trying to sell a phone that the carrier doesn't like is suicide in that business.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:51 AM on August 25, 2010


Examples?

Examples of different features include the type of user interface, varying support for Exchange accounts, and differences in the way the "stock" applications work - like the Contacts list.

If the phone manufacturer doesn't want to release an update, you may be out of luck. However, Android's open-source nature allows for independent (and hobbyist) developers to port the new OS to older hardware. I'm running Android 2.2 Froyo on my Droid Incredible, despite the fact that HTC or Verizon have thus far failed to provide an update of their own.

Is the fact that you were able to do this due directly to the popularity of the Droid Incredible over other phones, or would I likewise be able to load a public ROM of 2.2 on any phone, if I wanted to?

That is, did some group specifically need to create a 2.2 ROM for the Droid Incredible?
posted by odinsdream at 11:30 AM on August 25, 2010


Another example of feature support would be multitouch: Some phones have it, some don't. Apparently due to some kind of patent litigation? I'm not sure if this affects just certain manufacturers, or certain implementations.
posted by odinsdream at 11:32 AM on August 25, 2010


The carriers control what gets pushed out for locked (basically all but Nexus / G1) phones. They work with the manufacturers on this. Google is involved only for "Google Experience" devices, a phrase which originally meant basically running stock Android but seems to have evolved a bit.

If you have a "developer" phone, like the Nexus One (which you can still buy unlocked from Google if you're a Android market developer, which really just means register and pay $25 you dont actually have to write any code :) ), then you can modify it however you want including putting custom builds of the OS on the phone.

The most recent "stock" Android phones, which means they have the normal UI and generally receive the latest updates, are the Droid (NOT DroidX or Droid2) and Nexus One. The Droid is locked, meaning Verizon controls the update process, but otherwise unmodified, and has recently been upgraded to Froyo (the most recent version of the Android OS). Nexus One is generally unlocked and gets updates directly from Google.

The best analogy in the PC world is Linux. Some vendors will ship it with customizations, you can download it yourself but you need hardware to run it on, anyone can grab the source and put it on basically anything.
posted by wildcrdj at 11:34 AM on August 25, 2010


Multitouch should be on any recent Android phone, that was more of an OS/version thing. It wasn't supported properly until Eclair. Of course any customized Android build _could_ remove it if they wanted.

If you want to load your own Android build onto a locked non-stock phone like the Incredible, you'd need to "root" it. This is like jailbreaking an iPhone. I assume it's not too hard to do but I've never done it myself, and if you're in the US this has explicitly been ruled legal.

Of course once you do this you may have to update it yourself, not sure if you can switch to the Google update stream or something like that.

[this is all complex, yes. Most consumers will just buy a carrier locked/managed phone and it won't be substantially different in terms of what can/can't be done than Symbian or other OS's used by carriers before. For those who want the additional customization/power it gets complicated, which is the nature of an OS that any manufacturer can put on their phone, versus one that is only available licensed like iOs or Windows Phone].
posted by wildcrdj at 11:37 AM on August 25, 2010


If you want a phone that will have the latest Android release the soonest, for the longest, with the most featuresest, get the phone that Google developers use and root it.

Right now, that phone is the Nexus One. In the US, you can get it through T-Mobile. By rooting the phone you and Google get to decide when the phone is worthy of an update, without the carrier coming into the mix. Carriers can withhold updates from supported hardware for, I don't know, reasons like not wanted to spend limited support dollars on a no-longer top of the line model.

As a point of comparison, the previous (and first) Android phone, the G1, still gets (unofficial) updates for the latest OS, despite being totally underpowered. There are enough developers out there with this phone that they'll port the latest Android OS onto the G1s suboptimal hardware.

The same will be true of the Nexus One for, I'd guess, a year or two after Google itself is no longer making official releases for the hardware.
posted by zippy at 11:58 AM on August 25, 2010


On a related note, just saw that the new Dell Aero is running Android 1.5, which is over a year old IIRC. Which would in fact mean no multitouch, etc. Madness, but I'd assume they took a snapshot of Android sometime in the past and modified it from there which makes updating tricky for them.
posted by wildcrdj at 12:01 PM on August 25, 2010


- Google controls the "Google Experience" (aka the google apps)
- The Open Handset Alliance controls Android.
- The phone manufacturer controls the hardware + drivers.

The carrier decides which combinations of the above items go into the specific release on their network.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:11 PM on August 25, 2010


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