Are Carriers Putting Google’s Android at Risk?

A complaint from the American Civil Liberties Union has suggested that the Android operating system is a risk due to fragmentation and that mobile carriers could be to blame.

Since Google’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android operating system was first introduced, it has undergone a number of iterations — in chronological order: Donut, Eclair, Froyo, Gingerbread, HoneyComb, Ice Cream Sandwich, and Jelly Bean — and many of these operating system versions are still running on devices today.

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The versions can even be fragmented further as Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) modify the operating system to better suit their phones. This leaves a broad range of tweaked devices and different Android versions running on the market. This could be seen as a good thing in terms of variety, but there are some troubles.

A survey by the ACLU showed that only 2 percent of Android devices are running on the latest software. 39.7 percent of Android use was on Gingerbread, or versions 2.3.3 to 2.3.7, which was released more than 2 years ago. Some 5.9 percent of Android devices are running on even older software. As these figures indicate, almost half of all Android devices run majorly outdated software.

For Google, the diversity in operating systems can mean trouble when trying to work with developers, as they would be required to develop different versions of apps to function properly on a very wide range of devices. But, perhaps more concerningik, the fragmentation and outdated software leaves many Android users vulnerable…

The reason the ACLU brought up the issue of fragmentation in the first place was because of the potential for hackers to exploit Androids is greater than for any other mobile operating system as more and more Android-powered devices are running on outdated software. The status quo has many users’ smartphone-stored data at risk, and the ACLU pointed a finger at wireless carriers.

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Among those blamed were AT&T (NYSE:T), Sprint-Nextel (NYSE:S),  Deutsche Telekom’s (DTEGY.PK) T-Mobile, and Verizon (NYSE:VZ). Though Google and OEMs are the parties responsible for developing the new versions of Android, the mobile carriers are the ones left to push out the updates to users, and it’s possible they are on the slow side.

In terms of business, it could make sense for the companies to want to hold out on updates, as some users will consider buying a new phone if they don’t think they will get a software upgrade for their device. But, such a practice could be putting users at risk. Sprint said it followed “industry-standard best practices” and Verizon said it was pushing out patches “as quickly as possible.” It might just be that carriers can’t keep up with the need for software upgrades in the relatively young smartphone market. The ACLU has asked the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to look into the carriers’ policies, and some changes could be coming in the future.

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