Reality check: The truth about iOS vs. Android upgrades

iOS vs. Android Upgrades

You may have noticed I've stayed pretty tight-lipped (well, relatively speaking) about Apple's annual adjective-laden self-love fest. After all, there are only so many times you can say the Same. Damn. Thing.

Now that the hubbub has died down a little, though, there's one bit of misleading information from the infamous reality distortion field that needs to be addressed. It's about the always-popular subject of Android upgrades and how they compare to Apple's more streamlined setup.

During its Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday, Apple CEO Tim Cook took the chance to brag about how "over 90 percent of iOS users are using the latest version of iOS." This, he said -- with a giant pie chart to support his point -- "stands in stark contrast to Android," where version usage is significantly more spread out.

Cook isn't technically wrong: Android, with its wide range of manufacturers and models, can't match Apple's "all at once" upgrade system. That's what happens when you have dozens of companies making hundreds of devices instead of a single company making a few.

Here's what Cook forgot to mention, though -- and it's an important distinction: While most Apple devices get OS upgrades at the same time, many of them don't get all the features introduced with each release. Look at last year's iOS 6: Sure, the iPhone 4 received the software upgrade. But key features like Siri, panoramic photos, turn-by-turn navigation, and Maps Flyover were stripped out of the experience. (Remember, it isn't "fragmentation" if it's "magical.")

iOS 7 Fine Print

The same will hold true with iOS 7: Yep, Apple's recent older devices will get the upgrade -- but when you read the fine print at the bottom of the company's website, you'll see that neither the iPhone 4 nor 4S will get marquee features like AirDrop and in-camera filters. Got an iPad 2? You won't get access to any filters at all. And those devices will continue to lack the aforementioned basic features from last year's release.

There's also the issue of what's considered an "upgrade." Apple tends to release its software upgrades infrequently and in giant chunks. Google, on the other hand, is moving increasingly toward a system in which key system components are unbundled from the OS -- things like Gmail, Google Calendar, Maps, the Chrome browser, even Google Search, Sound Search, and Voice Search -- and are consequently updated frequently and directly to all devices in an a-la-carte-style manner.

Along with those front-facing elements is the newly expanded Google Play Services, a behind-the-scenes system that lets developers tap into core Android features within their own applications. It, too, is now updated independently of the actual OS, allowing Google to push out significant new system functionality to all phones and tablets regardless of what software they're running.

Google App Updates

Think about it this way: Over the last month alone, this decentralized system has provided Android users -- anyone with a device running software from 2011 or later -- with a refreshed Gmail app, a rewritten music app, an on-demand music streaming service, a new universal messaging system, a new series of context-sensitive Google Now commands, a new and improved Google Maps, a new version of Google+ with advanced and automated photo manipulation tools, a new universal gaming center, an updated Calendar app, and an updated system keyboard. That's enough stuff to amount to a major update in Appleland -- and with Android, it happened outside of any such parameters.

Google's own unlocked Nexus devices, it's also worth noting -- the ones Google actually develops and endorses -- do provide a guarantee of timely ongoing full OS upgrades. For users who want to be running the latest full version of Android at all times, that option is there. In both concept and selection, the Nexus devices are actually pretty comparable to Apple's entire product lineup; the difference is that with Android, there's also a huge variety of other devices from which users can choose.

Here's the bottom line: Apple's iOS and Google's Android take very different approaches to software upgrades, and each setup has its own share of pros and cons. Is running iOS 6 with many of its key features stripped out any better than running Android 4.0 with new standalone updates added in? That's for you to decide.

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One thing I can assure you, though, is that the mobile upgrade game is evolving. Numbers alone no longer mean everything -- and a giant pie chart certainly doesn't tell the whole story.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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