Galaxy S9 and the elephant in the room with Samsung's Android phones

Samsung's Galaxy S9 will almost certainly share its predecessor's critical flaw — and yet hardly anyone will address it with the weight it deserves.

Samsung Galaxy S9
JR Raphael

Ahhh — take a good, deep breath. Can you smell it?

Yes, my friends, it's that time of year again: time for the air to be filled with the familiar and curiously pungent scent of Samsung flagship phone leaks.

You know the deal: Every year 'round this time, we start to see clouds of grand Galaxy S promises — spec sheets, feature lists, phone images, and the occasional crudely drawn caveman sketch — wafting out into the world. Samsung's ship is about as leaky as they get, and hype-generating tidbits always seem to slip out at juuust the right time (but it's absolutely, positively not a deliberately orchestrated marketing tactic — no way, José!).

This year's Galaxy S9 gushage is already in overdrive. The requisite renders are out, as are numerous details about the upcoming devices. The S9 will have newer processors than its predecessors (try saying that five times fast!), plus options for more RAM and a bunch of new number-filled camera technology. Oh, and smaller bezels, of course — because, well, you know.

Samsung Galaxy S9 Android @evleaks / Twitter

That's all well and good, but every year 'round this time, I can't help but wonder how the conspicuous caveat with Samsung's Galaxy phones always gets brushed aside and minimized — both in the hype leading up to a new launch and during the allegedly critical evaluation phase that follows.

I'm not talking about TouchWiz (another can of worms for another day). I'm not even talking about Bixby (same). I'm talking about Samsung's complete disregard for keeping its Android products up to date and providing a reasonable level of post-sales software support.

It's the industry's worst-kept secret: Once you buy an Android phone, you become an afterthought to most manufacturers — among the lowest of low priorities. By and large, Android upgrades are embarrassingly slow and unreliable. And Samsung, the company with the deepest coffers and strongest clout in this ecosystem, is consistently one of the worst offenders.

To wit: Samsung took a leisurely 179 days to deliver Nougat to customers who purchased its then-current Galaxy S7 flagship in the U.S. last year. Owners of its then-previous-gen flagships, the Galaxy S6 and Note 5, waited an average of 230 days to see their upgrades. That's half a year and almost two-thirds of a year, respectively, for recent devices that people paid top dollar to own.

What about Oreo? Well, stamp a big, fat "TBD" on that form. As of today, we're a whopping 163 days since the software's public release (the day the final code was submitted into the Android Open Source Project and made available to manufacturers). So at the very best, Samsung looks to be keeping pace with its less-than-stellar past efforts.

Samsung isn't quite as shameful with its handling of monthly security patches — which is something, at least — but even those tend to be pretty hit and miss, when they should be treated like clockwork. All around, it's simply unacceptable. But it isn't surprising.

We've talked about this before: With the sole exception of Google, the companies selling Android phones have no real motivation to care about post-sales support and make timely ongoing upgrades a priority. If anything, their motivation runs exactly counter to your interest as the customer. Unless that motivation evolves, it's hard to imagine much changing.

(And I know: This is gonna be the year that all gets fixed! Well, maybe. There's always some new reason for optimism, but the truth is that the underlying realities remain the same — and that leads me to remain skeptical.)

To a large extent, it's become one of those "it is what it is" sorts of situations: Android manufacturers suck at upgrades — har, har, har. Whatcha gonna do? Things aren't quite so simple, though. And at this point, in 2018, this shouldn't be brushed off as unavoidable.

With Google now selling its own self-made and supported Pixel phones, a better example exists — a top-tier standard-setter that not only receives fast and frequent OS and security updates but does so for a full three years from a device's debut. In a time when smartphone hardware is increasingly commoditized and annual hardware refreshes are ever-more incremental, the significance of that can't be overstated.

Plain and simple, software — not hardware — has become the most meaningful differentiating factor among devices. As a wise and well-proportioned augur once wrote:

Our phones have essentially turned into frameworks for the more important and impactful software, ecosystem, and overall user experiences that exist inside. And those latter pieces of the puzzle are the ones that affect us most significantly on a day-to-day basis over the life of a modern mobile device. ...

Software is the part of your phone you interact with most intimately and most often. It's the part of your phone that has the potential to evolve over time — if the maker of your device is so motivated — and to keep your device feeling fresh year after year. So think about your phone over the 12, 24, or 36 months you might use it, and ask yourself: Do you want a neat-looking vessel that's bound to be mostly ignored or even outright abandoned after you buy it, or do you want a pragmatic gadget that's going to give you an optimal and always-up-to-date user experience for the next three years?

So here we are, with the peppery musk of Galaxy S9 rumors filling our muzzles — and here we are, at the start of yet another cycle of elephant-in-the-room-ignoring infatuation.

If you understand the realities of Samsung's stance on software support and decide you like the devices enough to say "screw it" and buy 'em anyway, hey — more power to you. That's what choice is all about.

But so many of the same people who wear rose-tinted goggles this time of year are the same folks who complain about slow upgrades when the (both literal and metaphorical) winter rolls around. And so many people — be they casual consumers walking into carrier stores, business-doers buying BYOD phones for work, or IT professionals making company-wide purchasing decisions — aren't aware of the full scope of the Android upgrade landscape and the options available.

As mobile tech enthusiasts (a nice way of saying "geeks in the know"), it's our responsibility to talk about phones with their full context intact. Whether you're a professional reviewer or a casual recommender, you simply can't overlook the big honkin' caveat that comes with every Samsung Android product. The state of a phone's software is going to have an enormous impact on what the device is like to use over its lifespan — far more than any surface-level element — and that needs to be a prominent part of the discussion, not an asterisk-level afterthought.

By all means, let's talk about the Galaxy phones' gorgeous designs, stunning screens, and commendable cameras. But let's put that in perspective and talk, too, about the likelihood of owning a phone that's perpetually out of date and behind the curve in terms of both technological progressions and platform security. Let's not ignore the six-plus months you'll likely wait for current software to reach you. And let's not overlook the fact that at this point, that isn't just "par for the course."

If you're reading this, you probably know the nuances of Android and are perfectly capable of making your own informed decisions — but most people are far less familiar with these increasingly important incricacies. By glorifying phones like the Galaxy S9 and brushing over such pivotal pitfalls, we're doing a serious disservice to those who listen to us and look to us for guidance.

We can't force Samsung or other Android device-makers to take upgrades seriously. What we can do, however, is start treating post-sales support like the critically important factor it is — and start relaying that perspective responsibly to anyone who values our knowledge, expertise, and level-headedness when it comes to technology.

The elephant is getting too impactful to ignore.

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