Android Upgrades

The massive Android upgrade you probably didn't notice

Not many people realize it, but Android O isn't the only big improvement making its way to mobile devices this summer.

Android Upgrade
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Do me a quick favor, wouldja? Read over this list of smartphone software improvements — using your best jeans-clad, adjective-abusing Apple-exec-at-a-keynote voice in your head — and tell me if it sounds like a significant upgrade.

Specifically, think about whether it sounds like the sort of thing that'd result in awkwardly long applause breaks as the presenter emphatically wraps up each point:

This summer's groundbreaking upgrade includes fresh features, performance enhancements and interface improvements for more than 40 core parts of your smartphone experience.

Some of the significant changes we've rolled out to every user around the world within weeks of their release:

  • A magical new sharing system for your photos that lets you automatically share any images you take of specific people — like your children — with a specific partner, like your spouse. It'll completely change the way you think about your photo collection.
  • A brand new device-wide security system that puts your safety first with continuous ongoing malware monitoring. We go a step beyond what other platforms do for security by monitoring not only our own app store but also your actual device for any signs of shady behavior. We even scour the web for sites that might serve up malware or try to trick you into providing personal information, and we'll warn you if you ever come close to opening any such site on your phone.
  • Numerous other improvements to your mobile internet browser, including an advanced system for blocking vibrating ads and other annoying or malicious ad behavior, cutting-edge support for animated PNG files, an intelligent link-suggestion mechanism that'll automatically pull up any URL you've copied whenever you touch the address bar, an insanely amazing system that allows websites to tap into your phone's camera and take full-resolution photos — with your permission, of course — and a host of security and performance improvements that'll make the web faster and safer than it's ever been.
  • A completely redesigned lost phone app to let you pinpoint your device's precise location and then remotely ring it, lock it and wipe it. It's easier to use than ever, whether you're on another mobile device or a desktop computer.
  • A brand new intelligent news experience right on your home screen. The new personalized feed will automatically give you stories based on your own personal interests. You can even opt to follow topics on your own — everything from movies to sports teams or music artists — from the feed itself or directly from the web. It's hands-down the most beautiful and advanced news experience you've ever encountered, and it's designed to work specifically for you.
  • A revolutionary new system that provides real-time alerts and interactive information to help you stay safe and informed during any sort of crisis. If you're ever near such an event, an SOS alert will appear on your device with all the info you might need — and if you're looking for updates from afar, all you'll have to do is search your phone's Maps app to receive the same SOS assistance. We'll track down and provide timely overviews of the situation with everything from detailed maps of the affected area to real-time updates on traffic, road closures and transit status as well as up-to-the-minute news stories, helpful phone numbers and websites. We'll even give you one-tap links to places you can donate to help those affected.
  • A new detailed-to-the-minute Maps graph system that lets you see exactly how long it'll take you to get anywhere — anywhere! — based on precisely when you leave your current location. And if you feel like traveling virtually, don't miss our incredible new life-like space view that lets you fly to the International Space Station and tour the site along with its amazing views of Earth in beautiful 360-degree detail.
  • A magical new time-saving addition to your mail app that automatically predicts how you're likely to reply to messages and then suggests multiple prewritten responses — any of which takes a mere two seconds for you to select and send.
  • More productivity-oriented enhancements than we could possibly even address here, including an improved Calendar app with easy drag-and-drop event editing; a powerful undo and redo command for your phone's note-taking app; a freshly redesigned system Clock app with newly built-in screensaver controls; access to our latest and greatest Contacts app, with a refined interface and the simplest auto-syncing system you'll ever use; some amazing improvements to your Calculator app that allow you to manually edit expressions without wasting time; support for physical keyboard navigation across our entire work-based office suite; our best keyboard ever, with new advanced privacy controls, support for 30 new languages and the magical ability to find emoji simply by speaking or drawing what you want; and a brand new multiperson video meeting app for our enterprise customers.

Oh, and one more thing: We're also launching a revolutionary new system that'll allow you to use all the features of your favorite mobile apps on the fly, without ever having to install a thing.

(I took the liberty of adding in some Apple-esque superlatives and excessively repeated adjectives for effect. Forgive me.)

That sort of collection would make for quite the iOS upgrade, wouldn't it? I don't think it's too tough to imagine.

If you haven't caught on yet, what I actually just described — beneath all the flowery language silliness — was the set of upgrades delivered by Google to practically every Android device over the past few months. It didn't have a version number or name attached to it, because it wasn't technically an "OS upgrade." But grouped together and considered under the right perspective, it sure seems like more than enough to qualify as one.

The reality is that all of these additions and improvements happened by way of individual app updates sent out via the Play Store. We've talked about this a fair amount over the years, but given the depressing Android O upgrade reality check the other day and my wide-reaching chat about OS updates on Computerworld's "Mingis on Tech" video podcast last week, I thought it was worth revisiting with a specific illustration.

You know the deal by now, right? Unless you have one of Google's own Pixel or Nexus devices, Android's actual OS upgrades are a bit of a mess. Most manufacturers take their good sweet time to roll out those sorts of updates — because, plain and simple, they have no real motivation to make post-sales software support a priority.

It's an undeniable truth we've seen reinforced year after year. It sucks, but it's an inevitable side effect of Android's open-source model (without which, of course, Android arguably wouldn't have become the force it is today, and we wouldn't even be here discussing this at all right now — see the circle?).

That said, it's critical to remember what an "OS update" actually entails — and why the term doesn't mean the same thing on iOS as it does on Android. As a result of the nature of its platform, Google has been taking significant steps to transform what upgrades represent on Android — and how they're able to reach us.

Part of that effort includes providing increasingly holistic options for those of us who do want the guarantee of fast and reliable ongoing OS upgrades for our devices. Google's own Nexus and now Pixel phones are actually quite comparable to the iPhone in that sense; the main difference is that they exist within a broader ecosystem of choices instead of serving as the ecosystem's sole members.

The other part revolves around making OS updates themselves less all-important. That's why Google has, little by little, pulled so many pieces out of the operating system and started updating them directly via the Play Store – an arrangement that requires no middleman and reaches every single user at almost the same time.

At this point, pretty much every non-foundational piece of Android exists in this manner — everything from the front-facing system-like apps for email, calendar, messaging, maps, photos, keyboard and so forth to the behind-the-scenes utilities like Google Play Services, which powers all sorts of location-, privacy- and security-related elements on Android devices (including the newly launched Google Play Protect system I alluded to in the list above).

Most of those elements are updated on a near-monthly basis. I looked at 40 of the most significant system-like elements in the Play Store — all of which would still be considered part of the actual operating system on iOS — and found all but nine of them had been updated within the past 30 days of this writing. All but five had been updated within the past two months, meanwhile, and all but two had been updated within the past three months.

As I've said before — and as our little exercise above demonstrates — the result of this is that any random month could see a level of system-like updates for Android that's comparable to a major OS upgrade on other mobile platforms. Google just does it quietly 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.

So is all of this to say that the OS upgrades themselves no longer matter? Not at all. They most certainly do — and nothing we've said here excuses manufacturers' poor performance at providing those upgrades to users. Android OS upgrades contain significant foundational improvements to the operating system and its core UI, and those are areas that can't be easily addressed with standalone elements. (That's why I continue to analyze and discuss them so often.)

But considered as a whole, the ongoing updates to individual system pieces in between those clustered releases are equally consequential — and yet they're almost always overlooked as part of the Android upgrade discussion.

Perspective matters. No matter how you feel about the state of Android, thinking about only half the story gives you an incomplete picture of what's actually happening.

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