Android 4 Ice Cream Sandwich launch musings. Samsung Verizon Droid Prime, Google Nexus, tablets and timing

It happens every year, like a clockwork.

By the end of summer/early fall, rumors about the new version of Android become so widespread, that there is no doubt in anyone’s mind the next Google mobile OS release is coming very soon. The only difference this year – is that we are talking about only one version of Android. At about this time in 2009 we were wondering about Android Donut and Eclair, in 2010 there was a lot of confusion about Gingerbread and Honeycomb.

Today we have only one version/codename – Ice Cream Sandwich Android 4 – to obsess about. We are now waiting for the first Android 4 smartphone – Samsung Verizon Droid Prime – to launch in the next few weeks, quickly followed by Google’s own unlocked Samsung Nexus Prime, and a plethora of Ice Cream Sandwich devices from other OEMs unleashed soon after that.

May be it will happen this way. Maybe Google has finally learned how to make and release the next generation of their platform in a finished, market and retail ready form, that OEMs can quickly adapt. But I really doubt that.

Release fast, release early and fix things as you go along” attitude is way too much in Google’s DNA. And this attitude lets Google push out new OS version updates at a pace nobody else can keep up. On the other hand, for the first next generation releases, it usually results in a half baked beta level software, that takes months to fix.

We’ve seen this happen with Android 1.x – the first more or less stable and market ready version (1.5 Cupcake) released 6 months after launch. We saw the same with Android 2.0/2.1 Eclair launch and again with Android 3.0/3.1/3.2 Honeycomb releases. There is no reason to think Android 4.0 roll-out will be different.

Only there is one more pattern emerging here. Android Honeycomb launch and subsequent updates felt very much the same as what was happening with Android 1.x. Google did not really care much about either generation of it’s platform. They both were never meant to be a true mass market Android OS platforms. That role was always assigned to the next, second (Eclair) and fourth (Ice Cream Sandwich) generations  of Android.

And, if history is any guide, Android 4 Ice Cream Sandwich roll-out will probably proceed pretty similar to the way Android 2 Éclair happened. It will not be nearly as fast as many of the eager Android fans hope. Verizon customers will get their hands on a new Android flagship this November, early adopters will be able to buy the next Nexus around Christmas, or early next year. But for the rest of the world – Android 4 smartphones will start shipping in volume only next spring.

Let’s take a look back at how Android Éclair has been launched by Google in late 2009/2010.

The mid October 2009 Android 2.0 Éclair launch on Verizon Droid was somewhat a surprise, coming only a few weeks after Google released Android 1.6 Donut. Everyone held their breath, waiting for other vendors to start announcing Android 2.0 handsets. But that never happened. For the rest of 2009, everyone doggedly stuck to Android 1.6/1.5 for their new smartphone releases.

By early November it was pretty obvious, that Android 2.0 wasn’t a software version worthy of a 2.0 number.It was half baked, one carrier/one vendor optimized release, that should have carried 2.0 beta tag at best. And it was also pretty clear that after Droid, there will be no more Android 2.0 phones in 2009, or ever.

Then, in early 2010, Google finally finished polishing Android 2 and released the final, mass market version (2.1), together with their own HTC made flagship – Nexus One. But for the first 4 months of 2010, only “pure Android” smartphones – Motorola Droid/Milestone and HTC Nexus One were available to consumer. HTC, which had an early access to Éclair code, was able to ship their first carrier optimized Android 2.1 handsets with Sense UI in April/May of 2010 (HTC Desire, Legend, Droid Incredible and EVO 4G). For other OEMs, it took several more months to get their Android 2 handsets ready to ship.

This time I expect something similar to happen with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich launch.

U.S. is still #1 market for Google, and Verizon is still a #1 carrier there. So, very soon, sometime around mid to late October, we will have a launch event where Verizon Droid Prime smartphone, running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, will be announced. And available for sale 2-3 weeks later. As rumors now have it, Verizon Droid Prime will be made by Samsung.

But this will be only one flagship smartphone for one U.S. Carrier, and the rest of us will have to wait for a while. How long – it will depend on Google: how many shortcuts they’ve had to take to get Samsung Prime with Android 4.0 launched on Verizon, and how ready for other OEMs and mass market adoption Ice Cream Sandwich really is.

If Google trusted Samsung to make make the next generation Nexus device as well, we might get Nexus Prime before the end of Holiday season. If there is some other vendor involved with that – we might have wait until CES. As for mass market Android 4 Ice Cream Sandwich phones, with Sense UI, TouchWiz and other customizations – those will start showing up sometime next spring.

Of course, the situation this year is different from 2009. And, while history tends to repeat itself, the repetition is never exactly the same. There are quite a few wildcards with Android 4, the biggest one of them is that Ice Cream Sandwich is supposed to unify tablet and smartphone versions of the OS. And Google has yet to show us their own “lead device” in a tablet form factor – Motorola Xoom was certainly not it. Will it happen together with Verizon Prime smartphone launch? Or will Google have a separate event for their own flagship tablet? Heck, is Google even working on one?  There were some rumors this spring that Google tapped LG for their Nexus Tab. Is this work still on track?

If LG is working on Ice Cream Sandwich tablet, they must have access to the same OS code that goes into smartphones. I can’t see someone like HTC or Samsung launching “pure Android” smartphones of their own, unless they are doing an Android lead/flagship device to Google’s specifications. Samsung and HTC are doing to good with their own, customized Android handsets. But LG situation is different. Right now they are not doing too well with their smartphone biz, and are rather desperate to catch up to the big boys. If they see a chance to do that by ditching their own Android customizations, and betting on being first to market with carrier subsidized Android 4 phones, they will do it in a heartbeat.

So we may see much more Ice Cream Sandwich smartphones much earlier then we had with Éclair. And all of them, to our geeky delight, pure Android Experience handsets.

Author: Stasys Bielinis

While I like to play with the latest gadgets, I am even more interested in broad technology trends. With mobile now taking over the world - following the latest technology news, looking for insights, sharing and discussing them with passionate audience - it's hard to imagine a better place for me to be. You can find me on Twitter as @UVStaska'

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  • Anonymous

    Keep on top of it Staska, especially if, when, and what configuration of the Prime may come to Verizon. They need to make up for the pitiful Bionic.

  • Anonymous

    Keep on top of it Staska, especially if, when, and what configuration of the Prime may come to Verizon. They need to make up for the pitiful Bionic.

  • Anonymous

    Reading this reminds me of all the flaws in Android. For all its greatness, this flaw is something that needs to be fixed, if not, it’s gonna to destroy the whole OS. It seems like I’m being dramatic, but how long b4 the average consumer catches on to what’s happening.? Before they realize that these updates are awesome, but that certain devices aren’t getting them in a timely fashion? When that happens, google is gonna have its hands full. But i do trust they can easily fix this by establishing tighter control.

  • Darlene

    I think Ice Cream Sandwich is only going to work on
    dual core phones and devices.

  • Rcucchiara28

    Lets hope history does not repeat its self.

  • Marius Aarre

    Good article.

  • David Jenkins

    Still haven’t learned the possessive form of  “its” versus “it’s”, I see.