The million-dollar question about Android TV

A giant unknown about Google's new home entertainment software. Could this be a make-or-break factor?

Android TV

The big story out of this year's Consumer Electronics Show is Google's move to bring Android into your living room -- but when it comes to the company's new Android TV ecosystem, one big question remains:

How will software updates work?

Android TV, in case you've had your ears plugged lately, is Google's latest effort at getting its software into your home entertainment setup. At CES this week, Google announced that Sony, Sharp, and Philips all had Android TV-powered televisions in the works for this spring. A set-top Android TV gaming console is supposed to launch next month, meanwhile, and at least one standalone streaming media player is scheduled to arrive later this year.

But with the software coming preloaded on all of those devices, we need to know: Who will be responsible for future OS upgrades? Will Google itself handle rollouts, as it does with its Nexus products and Android Wear watches, or will it be up to each device manufacturer to process every update and send it out to customers?

As anyone who's familiar with Android knows, it's a critical question to consider. With phones and tablets -- Google's own Nexus devices being the main exception -- the responsibility of OS upgrades falls on the shoulders of individual manufacturers. It's an inevitable part of Android's open nature: Google's approach to the platform means manufacturers can modify the software in any way they wish, which allows for a level of diversity and innovation a closed ecosystem couldn't provide.

But that also means the software has to be handed off to those manufacturers anytime an update arrives -- and it's then up to the manufacturers to modify it as they will and roll it out to users. And, to put it nicely, some manufacturers are better than others at getting upgrades delivered in a timely fashion.

Irksome as that can be, it's par for the course with phones and tablets -- and it's something we've (more or less) come to expect. The same goes for the typical shelf life of a mobile device: Once a phone's been around for about 18 months to two years, you know it's probably not going to get any more major software upgrades. Love it or hate it, smartphones operate under the principle that you're gonna buy a new one every couple of years.

Televisions, though? If you're anything like me, they're a completely different story. Most people I know (myself included) don't buy new TVs terribly often. I've seen some analyst estimates that put the typical TV replacement cycle in the ballpark of once every four to five years, but even that seems a bit on the high side to me.

So with a still-young operating system that's bound to get a fair amount of updates over the months and years ahead, the questions of how reliably those upgrades will be delivered and for how long your TV will receive them are pivotal. If Google puts out a transformative Android TV update in December, you don't want to be waiting six to eight months for it to reach your television.

And if you buy a TV this year, you don't want to find out that it's done getting upgrades two, three, even five years from now. Buying a new phone every couple of years in order to keep up with the latest software is one thing. I don't know that most of us want to be on that regular of a replacement cycle with our televisions, too.

Google has said that all Android TV devices will have a consistent user interface, which gives me hope for a universally streamlined and Google-controlled upgrade system -- but hope isn't the same thing as confirmation. And even if upgrades are guaranteed to be timely across the board, the question of how long TVs will receive updates after they launch still remains.

Maybe an Android TV-based television will be a brilliant way to experience entertainment. Maybe a "dumb" TV with a more easily replaceable set-top box will be the smarter option (better to buy a new $100 box every few years than a new $2000 television, no?). Or maybe sticking with the simplicity of a phone-centric streaming solution like Chromecast will end up being the most sensible solution for some of us.

Here's hoping that by the time Android TV products show up on store shelves, we'll have enough specific and detailed information to make an educated decision.

(I've reached out to Google to ask for clarification on this subject. I'll update this page with additional info if/when it becomes available.)

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