Why Apple-to-Android upgrade comparisons are utterly meaningless

Everyone who pits iPhone and Android upgrades against each other makes the same critical mistake -- one that makes all such comparisons completely fruitless.

Apple-Android Upgrade Comparisons

Android upgrades are a contentious topic. Bring 'em up in any way, and you're bound to see some riled up people.

I should know: I've observed and analyzed Android upgrades for years now -- all the way back to the now-ancient-seeming Android 2.2 Froyo era, when widespread rollouts for the platform were still an untested concept. And in all of that time, one thing has stayed pretty much the same: By and large, Android manufacturers suck at delivering timely and reliable OS updates.

But hang on: Not everything about the Android upgrade situation has remained constant over these past several years. In fact, one very significant area has evolved considerably -- and it's an area that's almost always overlooked as part of the Android upgrade discussion, particularly when iOS comparisons come into the picture.

As we think about Google's new Pixel phone and its unique position as the sole current handset guaranteed to get quick and regular Android updates, it's important to step back and put the situation in perspective -- because there really is much more to it than what we see on the surface. And while iPhone-to-Android upgrade comparisons are an inevitable side effect of the discussion (and one I've already heard brought up plenty in the context of the Pixel, especially when it comes to its short-seeming two-year window for support), the truth is that upgrades on iOS and Android are drastically different beasts.

Trying to compare them directly is -- well, you know. Like trying to compare apples and oranges.

The upgrade comparison paradox

Let's get right to the missing piece of this puzzle: What people never seem to remember when talking about smartphone upgrades is that on Android, unlike on iOS, OS upgrades themselves are not the full story. They're but one part of a much bigger upgrade picture.

For a real-world illustration, take this summer's iOS 10 release -- "the biggest iOS release ever," according to Apple. It was the first major iOS update since the previous summer's iOS 9 software.

While the update did include some of what we in the Android camp would consider "OS-level improvements" -- things like a revamped lock screen and widgets section -- the majority of the changes were basically updates to system-level apps.

For instance, iOS's Messages app got new features like multisized emojis, in-app photo editing, and in-line previews of web and video content; Apple's Photos app got a "Memories" feature along with automated image grouping; Apple Music got an updated UI; the Apple News app got suggested stories along with breaking news notifications; Siri gained the ability to work with a limited range of third-party apps; Apple Mail improved its handling of email threads; and Apple Maps got, um, slightly less crappy.

These are the features, almost exclusively, that Apple itself highlights as being the most meaningful improvements in iOS 10. And altogether, they're certainly no small upgrade.

As an Android user, though, the situation seems somewhat strange -- because on Android, those types of improvements are the sorts of things we see year-round, independent of major OS releases. That's because Google has pulled most of the system-app pieces out of the OS itself and put them into the Play Store, where they exist like any other app and are updated regularly on their own cycles.

It's something Google's been doing since 2010 (and extensively since about 2013), with the deconstruction of the operating system reaching a new pinnacle earlier this year. At this point, practically every piece of the Android experience that isn't a core part of the actual foundational OS technically exists as a standalone app -- one that's updated frequently, universally, and outside of any formal OS releases.

Apples and oranges

Put into perspective, these are just some of the updates to system-like apps all Android users have received over the past six months -- unrelated to any actual OS release. Take a deep breath:

  • A new app for intelligently organizing and managing travel (Google Trips)
  • A pair of new chat apps for AI-aided conversation and quick-'n'-easy video (Allo and Duo)
  • A new Wallpapers app with a variety of live backgrounds and automatically rotating collections of thematic images
  • An updated Google Keyboard with added features like themes, gestures, suggested emojis, an improved personal dictionary system, a new one-handed mode, improved number support, and expanded language support
  • An updated Google app that provides a simplified way to search across all apps, messages, and contacts from a centralized location along with UI improvements, offline voice actions, a better web browsing experience, the addition of app-based quick-action shortcuts on the home screen, and more predictive cards in the Google Now/home screen feed
  • An updated Keep note-taking app with note-pinning, autocategorized notes, embedded previews in notes for web content, auto-completing lists, auto-condensing of duplicate items in lists, a streamlined UI, and a new system for sharing info from other apps into Keep notes
  • Numerous updates to the Chrome web browser that include a redesigned new tab page (including intelligent article suggestions), background media playing, faster and more power-efficient video playing, a new download feature for simple offline saving and viewing of web content, and seamless payments with Android Pay across compatible websites
  • Updates to Google Photos that enable faster in-app sharing of photos and albums, better image sorting within albums, more robust and varied memories and highlight features, more advanced and customizable auto-created videos, automated correction of sideways images, and an improved search experience
  • A slew of updates to Gmail and Inbox that include universal Exchange support, faster searching of messages both online and off, a new search interface with smart contextual suggestions, automated grouping of project emails from Trello and GitHub, in-line previews of Google Alerts and newsletter subscriptions, native support for Google Drive, and support for proper viewing of responsive email design on mobile devices
  • A refreshed UI for the Contacts app with better duplicate-contact management as well as label management
  • A ton of updates to Maps, including a series of new hands-free driving commands, a new traffic widget for the home screen, a better and more dynamic direction indicator, built-in support for viewing events and reservations, improved discovery for nearby restaurants, better options for reduced bandwidth use, and expanded support for ride-sharing discovery and comparison
  • Numerous updates to Google Play Services that allow developers to do all sorts of new stuff with their apps -- like letting users fill in phone numbers associated with their account with a single tap, checking the security of websites opened within an app against Google's gigantic database, and intelligently reacting to user context (which enables an app like Trulia to suggest open houses when the weather's good and a user is near relevant properties, for instance, or allows a music app to suggest music appropriate to activities like running, driving, or arriving at the gym when headphones are plugged in and those activities are underway)

I could go on -- we didn't even touch on the updates to apps like News & Weather, Android Pay, Translate, Calendar, Messenger, Books, Docs, Slides, Sheets, Drive, Remote Desktop, or Authenticator, nor did we get into broader platform-level updates like the debut of Google Play shared family libraries and music plans, the advent of Project Fi-like automated encrypted Wi-Fi use for Nexus phones, or the slew of advancements to security-centric elements like the Android System Webview component -- but you get the point.

As I've noted before (and as the above list certainly illustrates), 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 various pieces add up.

As far as the actual OS goes, what's left in Android itself is basically just the engine room-style stuff -- the main guts and the parts of the UI (like notifications) that haven't been pulled out into separate pieces. It's a vastly different scenario than what Apple has concocted with iOS, and that's why talking about how long an iPhone gets OS updates compared to how long an Android phone gets OS updates is a meaningless exercise.

What it boils down to is this: The phrase "OS update" means drastically different things on each platform -- and even if you don't take into account the fact that Apple generally gives older devices only a fraction of the features available on any new iOS release, looking at OS updates on Android alongside those on Apple just isn't a parallel comparison.

That's not to say that Android OS updates are no longer important -- far from it. Android OS updates 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 core releases are equally consequential, and that's something most people fail to factor into the OS upgrade discussion.

Now, let's get one thing straight: Both platforms' approaches have their own sets of pros and cons, and anyone who claims utopia on either side is drinking a little too much of someone's Kool-Aid. By all means, Android manufacturers could and should do better when it comes to formal OS updates. That's why I hold them accountable and grade them on their performance with rollouts every year, and that's a big part of why Google's own flagships phones (first Nexus and now Pixel) are the only devices I wholeheartedly recommend these days. (See also: their explicit promise for monthly security patches.)

And I genuinely do think Google has the opportunity to take the Pixel's advantage in the realm of upgrades and turn it up a notch -- to have the Pixel raise the bar not only for its commitment to update timeliness but also for its commitment to update longevity. Such a move would go a long way in increasing the Pixel's perceived value, and it'd make a powerful statement about the phone's positioning within the greater Android ecosystem.

We just have to remember that having that discussion within the parameters of Android and having that discussion as it relates to the iPhone are two very different things. And only one of them actually makes sense.

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