Google's new Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" includes a much smoother UI experience, offline voice dictation, offline maps, and the slightly creepy Google Now.
Of course, none of that matters if you aren't going to get it.
As we've recounted many, many times, unless you have an unlocked, non-carrier-branded Google Nexus phone, you just can't count on your Android phone ever getting an upgrade. But rather than the toothless, failed "Android update consortium" announced last year, Google is finally calling the phone makers' bluff on upgrades. Pity it won't make any difference.
The Good News ... And The Bad News
For a while now, phone makers and chipset companies have been deeply annoyed that they only get new Android code when it comes out on Nexus phones. That means they start out months behind whoever the preferred Nexus partner was, as they optimise the new version first for their hardware and then they add those notorious OEM skins. Only then can the new version go to carriers for their weeks worth of compatibility testing.
Google's new "PDK" changes that game. Google will now give Android code to chipset and phone companies months before a Nexus device hits the scene, leveling the playing field. Now any delays that happen really will be the fault of manufacturer skins and carrier testing.
Here's the problem, though: while the PDK takes effect with Android 4.1, many device makers haven't even gotten up to Android 4.0 yet. Let's take Motorola, which you can be critical of because it's actually owned by Google. Motorola posts a handy-dandy chart of Android 4.0 upgrade status, where you'll find that many phones won't begin their upgrade rollouts until the third quarter of 2012, and many others will remain with Android 2.3 forever.
If OEMs care enough to prioritise upgrades, they'll rush the 4.1 upgrade into production and bring it along shortly after the 4.0 upgrade, or wrap both of them together. But Google's PDK doesn't necessarily change the economics of the phone marketplace. Carriers still want you to extend your contract by picking up a new subsidised device rather than going off-contract with an older phone. Manufacturers still make their money from selling new devices, not upgrading old ones.
Google's GSM-based Galaxy Nexus, Nexus S, and Xoom tablets will get Jelly Bean in mid-July, because Google controls those updates. But I wouldn't even expect other models of those same devices to get Jelly Bean quickly; US carrier Verizon has trapped incremental updates to Ice Cream Sandwich in carrier testing, to many Galaxy Nexus owners' dismay. Android 4.0.4 arrived on Verizon's phones two months after appearing on GSM models. Both Verizon and Sprint - another US mobile service provider - have thusfar declined to comment on the issue.
Why Android Upgrades Just Don't Happen
Apple has convinced carriers that iPhone users are terribly, terribly sticky; they're so satisfied with the platform (Apple's story goes) that if carriers just hand over control to Apple, they'll have customers for life. So far, that equation has worked out decently for the carriers; investment firm Canaccord Genuity said that the iPhone 4S is still the top seller on America's largest compatible national networks, while other analysts are venturing that prospects for 2013 look equally rosy for Cupertino, given the expected autumn launch of iPhone 5.
Microsoft also demands that every phone will get upgrades (if only to Windows 7.8), but I'm reluctant to take lessons from a company with such a tiny market share right now, so we'll move on.
Google doesn't push upgrades on OEMs and carriers; they're offered as purely optional add-ons. OEMs and carriers, meanwhile, see stock Android as a commodity. The best way to get an upgrade, in their minds, is to buy a new phone.
Since most of Android is open source, the one stick Google could hold over their heads would be withdrawing permission to use Google Play, Maps, and Gmail, but the company doesn't seem willing to go that far. The carriers and OEMs don't feel threatened by Google, but Google also isn't suffering; Android's market share just keeps rising. There's no incentive for Google to push harder. Things are working out for everyone except consumers who want upgrades.
So yes, Jelly Bean looks cool. Pity you'll probably never get it.