On the Rapid End-Of-Lifing of Android Devices

I visited a friend's school recently and, in several conversations, the question "what about Android tablets?" came up. I've always had a stock answer for that question up to now: "there were no Android tablets when we planned this". That's not very helpful to people planning deployments now, so I was forced to go away and think again about the new tablet landscape.

I only concern myself with what is real and verifiable. I have no interest in theoretical discussions about tablets that have been announced but haven't shipped yet. One of the shameful tales of the time since CES 2010 is the devices that were announced but never actually appeared on a store shelf to buy.

I will be clear up-front that I do not hate Android. I only hate stuff that makes my life harder, or would if I hypothetically bought it. I do, however, hate people yelling "OPEN" and "CLOWWWD" every ten minutes as if they have some kind of Technological Tourette's Syndrome.

My concern remains this: what do we mean when we refer to "an Android device" and, secondarily, in what sense is "Android" one cohesive interoperable platform that we can bet a large chunk of money on over the medium term?

The first question is, thus far, relatively easy. For most people "an Android device" is a mobile phone that was purchased with some kind of carrier subsidy (I know you can buy unlocked but most people don't). Only recently, with the Samsung Galaxy Tab, has the definition of "an Android device" started to include devices that are not traditional smartphones and which are not subsidised.

Having said that, my core belief about the new wave of "tablet computing" is that the hardware is only relevant insofar as it enhances the user's experience of the software. These devices really are all about the software and, in particular, they are about the user interface and user experience of the software. Nobody cares which kernels these devices are running.

So, from a user's perspective, are all Android devices perfect substitutes for each other? I argue that they are not. There are now many different "flavours" of Android - Google's "pure Google" Android experience, HTC's own interpretation and Motorola have their variations - and that's before the carriers start "adding value".

The second problem with "Android-powered devices" is that the history of that product category thus far has been a story about devices being built and sold and very quickly end-of-lifed for software update support by their manufacturers - or, in some cases, the carriers who have their boot on the software windpipe through subsidy contracts.

Sometimes, the speed of obsolescence is shocking. My current understanding is that every Android-powered device in existence today is essentially end-of-lifed because of Android 3.0's requirement for a dual-core processor. [Update: That was my understanding from CES coverage but Euan Maxwell pointed me to a tweet from Dan Morrill saying "there's no hard minimum processor requirement for Honeycomb" - so, a new question: which devices, on which carriers will get Honeycomb updates?]

That's a real problem for anyone arguing for a multi-year investment in mobile devices for a school. Doubly so when the user-level software capabilities of these devices are evolving and growing so rapidly. I pity the IT specialist who invests in Android only to find that they're trapped, Zod-like, in some plane of suspended animation for three years with devices permanently stuck on one OS revision while the world evolves around them.

It's increasingly hard to look at the disparate Android devices as members of a cohesive "platform" any more than you can say that a Tivo, a Kindle and a Linksys WiFi router are all members of the "Linux platform". Yes, they all use that technology underneath, but what does the user care? They're just products.