Jul 22nd, 2012

Developers outnumber us all.

No device manufacturer can hope to write all the software that a person could conceivably need. We need third-party developers to write the apps users want, so the Android Open Source Project aims to make it as easy and open as possible for developers to build apps.

-Partner’s page on Android.com

We’re just a few months away from the 5th Anniversary of one of the most significant day in our digital lives: the announcement of the Open Handset Alliance, and the birth of Android as we know it. And, rightly so, there’s a lot of excitement in the build up to the day.

However, most of the excitement is related to the rumors of 5 Nexus devices being announced as part of the celebration. However awesome that sounds, it’s not what I really want on November 5. What I want, more than anything else, is an attack on the biggest issue that has plagued the platform during it’s existence: updates.

Google has acknowledged the problem before, and even announced the Android Update Alliance at I/O 2011. Unfortunately, that was all we ever heard of the Alliance. It’s too early to tell if the Platform Developer’s Kit would prove to be a useful tool.If yesterday’s rumors about a Jelly Bean update for S III coming as soon as next month has anything to do with it, we’re finally on the right track.

However, maybe I’m just greedy but I want something more. When I read about HTC saying no to a Desire HD ICS update, it riled me up. As I’ve said in the past, the phone is more than capable of running ICS. I use a T-Mobile myTouch 4G, or the HTC Glacier as it was codenamed, which has the exact same internals as the DHD. I’m running an ICS ROM from XDA and despite some issues (the camera’s still not perfectly fine) it is far better than their stock Gingerbread ROM or even CM7. I went back to Gingerbread for a while when I felt I couldn’t live without a fully functional camera, but I missed the snappiness of ICS and returned to it. And I’ve been using it since mid-March.

This is where the quote at the beginning comes into it. While Google’s statement was in context with app developers, the same can be said of ROM developers. The manufacturer’s need to realize this and do one simple thing that could significantly improve the situation: when announcing that a device will not receive the latest version of Android, they must commit to releasing all proprietary code, primarily drivers, that can be used by developers to create their custom ROMs.

The way I see it, manufacturers have nothing to lose from this, and it greatly helps the community that has been struggling to reverse engineer several drivers that are necessary for smooth running ROMs. Users who are comfortable with flashing their own software can then choose to do, and would typically not bear any ill-will towards the manufacturer for having failed to provide an update on their own. If the manufacturer wishes, they can even use any of these ROMs as a base for their own update if they realize that the 3rd party developer has successfully tackled a problem they weren’t able to themselves.

I’d like to say that they must commit to future-proofing devices for at least a particular duration (say the length of the contract for $150+ device, a year for those that cost less), but that would be difficult to enforce, and I’m pretty certain Google wouldn’t want to go down that route. But this problem needs to be tackled, and as early as possible. Preferably, the release of these important bits of code should be done immediately, because what I would really like to see on November 5th is as many users on the latest versions of Android as possible.

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