While the launch of the new iPad is grabbing headlines worldwide this month, its chief software rival, Android by Google, is also undergoing a series of sharp changes that have not been heralded as widely.
Google's strategy -- to develop the same operating system software that every phone and tablet maker could share and create a uniform experience for users -- has largely worked.
Android is quickly becoming one of the most popular operating systems, embraced by some of the largest smartphone makers worldwide.
Samsung, Motorola and HTC, among others, have embraced the Linux-based software for their phones, customizing it a little, adding a few apps and offering competition to the popular iPhone.
But with so many cooks in the kitchen, Android was bound to run into communication hiccups stemming from inevitable changes and upgrades by wireless carriers and manufacturers.
Google, which developed Android, released the latest version late last year, somewhat whimsically called Ice Cream Sandwich. (Google names all Android versions after food.)
"What plagues the Android ecosystem is the lack of consistency," says Richard Shim of NPD Group's DisplaySearch. "That spells consumer experience that is less than ideal. It's difficult to navigate, and frankly, (something) consumers shouldn't have to deal with."
If you're an Android novice, here are some questions to ponder as you look to update your phone.
Q: What version of the Android operating system is on my phone?
A: If your phone is less than 2 years old, chances are that it's running on an OS called Gingerbread, which was introduced in late 2010. Google says about 60% of Android phones are using Gingerbread.
A much smaller percentage of users also has Froyo or clair phones, the versions that preceded Gingerbread.
Less than 2% of the phones currently used run on Android 4.0, also known as Ice Cream Sandwich.
Q: Do Android tablets run on the same OS installed on phones?
A: Nearly all Android tablets run on another OS called Honeycomb, which will be phased out, as 4.0 works on both tablets and phones.
Google made life difficult for developers by introducing Honeycomb in early 2011. As a result, some apps that run on phones don't work on tablets, and vice versa.
"These sorts of issues are being resolved, and they will go away," Shim says.
"You'll not only have consistency and compatibility and greater access to the library of apps, you won't have the headache of figuring all this out. Incompatibility in the software side and consumer confusion -- (4.0) is intended to address both issues," Shim says.
For example, smartphones and the Motorola Xoom tablet run on 4.0.
Q: What's special about Ice Cream Sandwich?
A: You can group your apps by dragging one onto another.
On smartphones, the home screen includes a "favorites tray" that can be customized to contain apps, shortcuts and folders.
You can check for messages, respond to calls with a text message, manage music tracks or go directly to the camera without unlocking the phone.
Android 4.0 also boasts improved error correction, a voice input for dictation and a feature that lets you unlock your screen by using technology that recognizes your face.
Q: When can I expect an upgrade?
A: Updates for many Gingerbread models will occur this year. Phone manufacturers, with approval from wireless carriers, largely determine when and which models are eligible and ready for an upgrade.
The industry generally supports phones up to 18 months. If you own a phone that's older than 18 months, you're likely stuck with the current OS.
Q: What are the upgrade plans of the three largest Android phone manufacturers -- Samsung, HTC and Motorola?
A: A small lineup of devices, including the Samsung Galaxy Nexus smartphone and Motorola Xoom tablet, already run on ICS.
Motorola says several devices now on Gingerbread will be upgraded throughout the year including Droid Razr, Motorola Razr, Droid 4, Droid Bionic, Atrix 2 and the Photon 4G smartphones and Droid Xyboard 10.1 and 8.2 tablets.
HTC says the following U.S. smartphone models will upgrade to ICS: Sensation 4G; Vivid; Amaze 4G; EVO 3D; EVO Design 4G; Rhyme; Thunderbolt; Droid Incredible 2; and HTC Rezound.
Samsung didn't reveal details.
Q: How do I upgrade to 4.0?
A: If your phone is eligible, you'll get an alert on your phone.
Once you agree to user terms, the new software will be installed automatically over the air.
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