The Orphans of Android

By Doug Miller

We’ve all read reports about mobile market share and the rapid rise of Android as a smartphone and tablet platform. Some reports – depending on how and what you measure – have Android share at just over 50% (comScore MobiLens US smartphones) and some as high as 72% (Gartner’s worldwide mobile device sales). One thing that has always puzzled me is why I see so few people using Android devices. Walking through an airport, a grocery store, a conference, a business meeting or on the street, I have been keeping an informal tally of what types of mobile devices people are using. I’m not sure what others see, but I sure see a lot of Apple mobile devices out there. I see people still using PCs on the plane (but a lot less than a couple of years ago), I see people with Kindles reading books and a random mix of other devices, but I just don’t see a lot of Android phones or tablets. While this is by no means a scientific sample, there may be a reason why we don’t see more Android devices out in the wild.

Based on my own experience with Android, I believe there are a lot of Android devices from months and years gone by that are sitting in drawers at home or are being sold on eBay. I myself have three Android phones and two Android tablets that are sitting on the sidelines. All of them suffer from what I and others call the “Android orphan syndrome.” By this I mean these devices have been forgotten by the manufacturers, the carriers and Google and are stuck on less-functional, less-stable earlier releases of Android. This is not a new issue. Others have written about this in the past and have even used the “Android orphan” term. In my own case, if I want to have the latest Android release I am forced to either load my own ROM (which usually voids your warranty) or abandon the device and buy a more recent model. While l am comfortable loading CyanogenMod ROMs on most of my Android devices, most consumers aren’t and many probably come to the conclusion that if they want the latest release of Android with all the latest bells and whistles such as Google Now or Chrome, they have to buy a new device. Perhaps this is driving a higher refresh rate for Android and artificially inflating the market share numbers.

To illustrate how severe the Android orphan issue is, I want provide details on my own experience with my latest Android device.

The Verizon Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 situationGalaxy Tab 7.7-260

I bought a Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7 that runs on Verizon’s LTE network less than a year ago. This is a pretty sweet device: a 7.7 inch format, LTE and WiFi connectivity, great screen resolution with 1280×800 pixels, a dual core processor, super lightweight, Samsung Approved for Enterprise enhancements and more. At the time, this was the leading edge of Android LTE-enabled tablets. There was only one problem when I bought it. It was running Android 3.2 (“Honeycomb”) even though 4.0 (“Ice Cream Sandwich”) had already been released for other devices. While I was assured that ICS would be released “soon” for the device, I should have paid attention to the alarm bells that were going off in my head (based on Android orphanism issues I had with three previous Samsung Android devices – an Infuse, a Nexus S and the original Galaxy Tab). While I am not normally obsessed with having the absolute latest operating system on my devices, I quickly found this Android release had real problems.

These included:

  • Apps that I bought for other Android devices wouldn’t run on this device (e.g. the Navionics marine navigation app)
  • I was getting a lot of “Force Close” crashes with many of the apps I use each day (e.g. the Wall Street Journal app).
  • Android randomly deletes my account settings for my Office 365 account and all my contacts, calendar events and email would vanish. I have to repeatedly redo my account settings.
  • The device reboots randomly at least a couple of times a week.Gmail
  • As newer versions of Android were released, I was no longer able to upgrade to the latest release of basic apps (e.g. the latest Gmail app can’t be loaded on this device).
  • New Google technologies such as Google Now and Chrome are simply not available for this older version of Android.
  • Overall this was the least stable Android experience I had ever seen, having used six other Android devices.

I have hung onto the device hoping that an update would appear. First in July, news came that an update was on its way. Nothing appeared. Then in October, there was another announcement with Verizon even posting a teaser on its website that the new release was imminent. To make matters worse, Verizon started selling the Tab 7.7 with ICS but still no update for the device I owned. Finally in December, I got an over the air (OTA) announcement that an update was available for download but to add insult to injury, the update fails to install. Android updateThere is open rebellion in the Verizon forums but still there is no update for the device. I’ve heard that some customers have been able to get an update by sending the device into Samsung after spending hours on the phone with tech support pleading for a fix. I suppose that will be my next step. In the meantime, I have given up hope that this very expensive, “state of the art” device – which is now 4 releases back from the current Android release – will ever have the most up-to-date Android release on it. And keep in mind this is a high-end device that is less than a year old.

Out of frustration, I went out and bought an Apple iPad Mini on AT&T’s LTE network. So far, so good.

Lessons Learned

I think there are lessons here for anyone looking at switching to Android. As an individual buyer, I am pretty much done with Android, Samsung and Verizon. The lack of support from all three parties will drive me to other vendors. With lots of choices in the mobile space, no one should have to put up with this.

I’ve heard some schools, government agencies and other large institutions are looking at deploying large numbers of Android devices. There is also news that Samsung will be focusing more on the enterprise in 2013. All I can say, based on my own experience, is that I can only imagine the upgrade and maintenance headaches as organizations try to keep these devices stable and functional over what should be a life of several years.

In conclusion, there is no reason we should have to buy new devices every year in order to maintain reliability and functionality. My two-year-old Acer laptop running Windows 7 still works fine. My first generation iPad is still a great machine. My older Windows phone, while not running Windows Phone 8, is still so fast and stable I have no reason or need to upgrade. It’s my Android orphans that seem to go south in less than a year. Buyer beware.

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