Google's I/O 2011 conference opened this morning in San Francisco, and the company made a number of announcements, including a new version of Honeycomb (3.1) for both tablets and Google TV, a preview of Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0), which is scheduled for release late this year, a new music service, specifications for interfacing to a variety of hardware devices, and a home automation initiative. However, perhaps the most important announcement was made concerning a policy for device updates.
One of the biggest drawbacks to the Android platform, both for users and developers, has been the lack of an official policy on which version of Android devices are released with, and when (or if) existing devices get updated to new versions of Android. As of today, Google has finally addressed the problem in partnership with some (but not all) of the members of its Open Handset Alliance. Vodafone, all four national U.S. mobile carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile), as well as handset manufacturers Samsung, HTC, LG, Motorola and Sony Ericsson have committed to provide timely upgrades for 18 months from the date that their new Android devices are released, so long as the devices are capable of supporting the upgrades.
It's not yet clear what "timely" means, but it's likely to mean anywhere from a few weeks to a few months after a new version of Android is released. Also, the 18-month period starts when a new device is released, not when a consumer purchases it, so this policy will encourage consumers to purchase Android devices shortly after they're released (and penalize those who buy a device fairly late in its life). In addition, it still doesn't compare to Apple's track record for iOS upgrades.
Nevertheless, this new policy is a big win for both consumers and developers. Consumers can purchase with reasonable assurance that their devices will remain current for at least 18 months, and developers can have a reasonable assurance that apps written for the latest version of Android will be adopted by customers much more quickly than in the past.