Google announced the debut of video and voice chat for the Android operating system Thursday afternoon.
In other words, you'll soon be able to make calls through Google Talk over Wi-Fi, 3G and 4G data networks (if your carrier supports it) to connect with other Android users as well as people using Google Chat on their computers.
The company plans to roll out the release beginning with Samsung Nexus S smartphone owners. After Nexus S owners receive an over-the-air software update in the next few weeks, they'll be able to take advantage of the new chat options in Google Talk.
But herein lies the caveat: Unless you're running the latest version of Android on your phone (version 2.3, aka Gingerbread), you won't be able to use the new features.
The release highlights an oft-discussed problem associated with Android-powered devices: software version fragmentation. As of today, only a handful of phones in the United States come with the latest and greatest build of Google's Android operating system right out of the box: the Nexus S, the Galaxy S 2 and HTC's Nexus One. (That last one is a year-old phone that's no longer available for purchase through carriers, and is only available direct from Google as a "developer phone"). All other Android phones are running version 2.2 (Froyo) or below.
Even phones debuting after the release of Gingerbread are being sold with out-of-date software. The big four Android smartphone manufacturers — HTC, Samsung, Motorola and LG — all launched new devices in 2011 running Froyo, a version of Android that's one generation behind the Gingerbread release.
Manufacturers often combat customer concerns around software updates by confirming an upgrade will be possible in the future. HTC says owners of its Thunderbolt smartphone should expect Gingerbread to arrive this summer. Motorola says its Atrix will be upgradable, though the company gives no timeline on the release.
Other customers are just plain out of luck. A veritable smorgasbord of devices won't be seeing a Gingerbread update at all.
"Once again, I am thrilled that I raced out and purchased an Eris," wrote Android user Mike Rich of his discontinued Droid phone, which Verizon has confirmed will not receive future software updates. "Sadly, after hockey season ends I won't be able to rent it out to anyone as a puck."
To be fair, some of it is because of hardware limitations on older generations of phones, which can't really be blamed on anything but the advance of technology. Devices like HTC's G1, released over two-and-a-half years ago, can't even fit the Froyo upgrade, much less Gingerbread, onto its system storage.
And handset makers are doing a better job than others in keeping their customers current. "Smartphone manufacturers update their software almost more than any other industry," Gartner analyst Phillip Redman told Wired.com.
But Android developers who don't want to abide by manufacturer timetables are producing DIY software updates. Popular phone modification programs like CyanogenMod offer an unofficial Gingerbread update to phones that aren't yet upgraded (along with a number of other customizations).
"CyanogenMod exists not because people want to root their phones," wrote software architect Nikolai Kolev in response to Google's announcement. "It's because people are tired of waiting."