Google boosts Android with ‘Cupcake’ update

‘A small but very sweet treat’: that could be the reason behind Google’s choice of codename for the first major upgrade to its Android smartphone platform. ‘Cupcake’ rolls a slew of updates into the open-source operating system most notably an on-screen keyboard (similar to those of the iPhone and BlackBerry Storm) and support for A2DP or ‘Bluetooth Stereo’.

Browsing gets a boost with faster performance plus find and copy/paste features in the browser which is now based on the latest (November 2008) WebKit core. There’s also the ability to record video and save MMS attachments – sure to be welcomed by the five people who actually use MMS.

Many of the issues associated with the mobile email client are swatted down including streamlining email account setup and new mail notifications for POP3 accounts displaying cc: recipients in the message more elegant recovery from POP3 connection failures and observing user preferences in displaying the date and time.

A sizable slew of the improvements in Cupcake were developed by the open source community and submitted into the public code repositories and along with Google’s own body of work have now been incorporated into the final update. And while Cupcake began as a separate development branch of Android it’s now been rolled into the OS codebase and thus will be available on all new Android devices.

Buyers of Android-powered devices such as the T-Mobile G1 (above) and Australia’s own Kogan Agora (below) will need to consider the upgradability of their shiny new smartphones when the OS itself is improved

However this has raised the issue of how individual vendors will handle updating existing first-gen Android devices. A case in point is the G1 built by smartphone colossus HTC and sold by US carrier T-Mobile.

Writing on a Google Group devoted to Android development Google software engineer Jean-Baptiste Queru observes that “The G1 contains a significant number of proprietary applications drivers etc… that aren’t part of the core Android Open-Source Project. Even if the source code for the 1.0 platform that powers the G1 was released you’d still be missing many parts to turn the base platform into something that exactly matches what shipped on the G1.”

In essence the presence of various third-party and proprietary components introduced into the Android platform on a per-phone basis means the updating of Android phones is a matter for each carrier and/or handset manufacturer not Google or the Android project team.

HTC has advised that Cupcake will make its way onto the G1 as an over-the-air update pushed out by T-Mobile although there’s no mention of a timeframe and there are indications that not all Cupcake features will find their way onto the G1 due to that device’s differentiation from the core code.

Hopefully this will be much less of an issue for future Android phones says Queru. “Cupcake sets a base that should reduce the impact of the first aspect with the open-source tree being hopefully eventually close (or identical) to the underlying platform of the stuff that ends up on consumer devices.”

But if a vendor or carrier chose not to update its Android devices – which could be the case for a very low-cost device produced merely to scoop up market share but with no serious desire to invest resources in on-going support for the customised platform – then buyers would be left out on a limb.