Android Intelligence Analysis

Apple's Android upgrade jabs come with a critical caveat

A friendly reminder about Apple's annual Android put-down -- and why you may want to take those pretty pie charts with a hefty grain of salt.

Apple Android Upgrade Comparisons
Credit: Comfreak

It's Apple WWDC week, gang -- and you know what that means: Time for lots of "magical" statements meant to make Apple look amazing.

We see this at pretty much every iOS-focused Apple event, and this year's dog and pony show was no exception. During Monday's keynote address, Chief Adjective Abuser Tim Cook showed off that slide we all knew was coming:

Apple WWDC 2017 Upgrade Slide jr

Ah, yes -- there it is: the annual boasting of upgrade numbers for Apple's own iOS compared to Google's poor third-world alternative.

The numbers do look dramatic on that big fancy pie chart -- no denying that. But as we've discussed 42 gazillion times before, there's more to this story than any single set of percentages can tell. And while strict version-adoption figures do have some relevance for developers, for the vast majority of folks -- from consumers to business users and enterprise IT managers, all of whom see stats like these and then naturally jump to conclusions -- the full story is much more nuanced.

Now, don't get me wrong: Android OS upgrades are a big, hot mess. As anyone who follows this column knows, I've been belting that tune from these humble hilltops for years. I've long conducted an annual in-depth analysis that assesses the state of Android upgrades, and the result is almost always a pitiful picture. The most recent findings were particularly poor -- and as I explained earlier this year, the underlying problem isn't even anything technical.

[SEE ALSO: 2 big asterisks to Google's latest Android upgrade fix]

So, yes: Android OS upgrades are not a stately situation. Apple's pie chart doesn't lie about that. What those stunning circles don't tell you, though, is that OS upgrades on Android play an extremely different role than OS upgrades on iOS. Google has deliberately shifted much of Android's core functionality away from the operating system and into standalone apps -- apps that are then updated instantly and universally, numerous times a year, without any manufacturer or carrier involvement and without any direct connections to the OS itself.

The result? As I've noted before (déjà vu all over again, right?), any random month could see a level of system-like updates for Android that's comparable to a major OS upgrade on iOS. Google just does it all in a subdued, piecemeal fashion and -- perhaps at its own expense in terms of public perception -- rarely draws attention to the big picture of what's happening and how all the pieces add up.

Why is that so important? Take a minute to look through Apple's new iOS 11 promo page. Once you get past the iPad-specific enhancements and into the broader phone-applicable stuff, you'll see that almost all of the new user-facing OS features in this upgrade are actually upgrades to OS-associated apps.

In Apple's world, software elements like Apple Pay, Camera, App Store, Messages, Siri, Safari, Apple Music, Maps, News, and the keyboard are all part of the operating system -- and so they receive new features only as part of OS upgrades. On Android, the equivalents of those same elements are all standalone apps that receive new features all the time, independent of the OS itself. Updates like the ones Apple describes within iOS 11 reach every Android user multiple times a year, regardless of their device's make or model; they're just spread out and treated as app updates instead of as part of a collective and OS-dependent effort.

(The same is true for numerous behind-the-scenes utilities like the Android System Webview component, which controls how web content is displayed in third-party apps, and Google Play Services, which powers system-level features such as casting, Instant Apps, Smart Lock, and a variety of location- and security-oriented items.)

All of that's not to say OS upgrades on Android aren't still important. They most certainly are: Android OS upgrades tend to contain significant foundational improvements to the operating system in areas like performance and core UI, and those are areas that can't easily be addressed with standalone elements. But considered as a whole, the ongoing updates to individual system pieces in between those releases are equally consequential, and that's something Apple consistently fails to factor into its twinkling comparisons.

Let's be clear: This isn't a matter of "taking sides" or mindlessly favoring one platform over the other. Both platforms' approaches have their own shares of benefits and drawbacks, and neither approach is perfect. But for consumers and business users, trying to compare the two as if they were parallel just doesn't make sense -- because, ya know, they're not actually parallel in reality. 

Apple's annual grandstanding may ostensibly be aimed at developers, but the rest of us see it, too -- and that's why this context is so important: because outside of one very specific scenario, those numbers alone don't add up to anything meaningful.

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