Android Upgrades

Android P is a perfect example of why OS updates still matter

It's easy to see the present form of Android P as lacking in pizzazz, but our first glimpse at Google's next effort speaks volumes about the ongoing importance of the OS-level update.

Android P OS Updates
WikimediaImages / JR Raphael

Android Upgrades

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On the surface, Google's Android P release — in its current, unfinished form — isn't exactly what you'd call "exciting."

Yes, the first developer preview of Android P has plenty of fresh functional touches (including a new native system for editing screenshots on the fly — who woulda thunk?!). And yes, it has its fair share of visual refinements, too.

But the bulk of Android P's biggest features so far have revolved around under-the-hood improvements — things like support for a newer Wi-Fi protocol that'll improve indoor location pinpointing, a more advanced system of image processing and compression for developers to utilize, and a more intelligent system for data management that'll let apps prefetch data only when network conditions are optimal.

Android P also gives apps expanded access to Google's neural networks system for advanced types of machine learning, creates a more effective system for the universal autofill process introduced in Oreo, and provides substantial improvements to the underlying systems that allow apps to operate. Apps on Android P should use less memory, be more power efficient, and be faster-loading than what we see now.

Then there's all the system-level privacy and security stuff, which is a story in and of itself. Among other things, Android P will bring about more controlled access to your device's camera, mic, and sensors; better encryption for backup data; more privacy with network connections; stronger protection from unsecure traffic; better protection of your unique device identifier; and the advent of user-facing warnings that'll help you avoid using apps that ignore the latest (and thus most advanced and secure) systems for interacting with your data.

Like I said, it's not the most sensational set of features — and Google is almost certainly saving the more attention-grabbing, marquee elements for a future pre-release update. What's interesting about this approach, though, is that it highlights something that often gets overlooked amidst an operating system's more exciting features: the fact that an Android upgrade is about much more than what we see on the surface.

Yadda, yadda, yadda — right? I know; I'm not exactly preaching rocket science here. But there's a reason this is important to point out and discuss.

Android P and the OS update puzzle

Just like clockwork, every time we start talking about Android upgrades and the fact that most manufacturers are doing an embarrassingly awful job at delivering software to their devices (you've seen these charts, right?), the puzzlingly-allegiant-to-this-or-that-company crowd shows up with the same lines of curious defense:

"Well, yeah, maybe Company X does take forever to get upgrades out. But people who buy its phones don't care about upgrades, anyway!"

Or sometimes:

"Company X's phones had features like split-screen mode long before Android did, so what's the difference if we get the latest update now or nine months late?"

And, of course, the always popular:

"So what? Android upgrades don't really matter, anyway."

To all of these statements, my dear discerning readers, I say the following: pshaw.

Let's start at the beginning: Yes, it's true that most of the general phone-buying population doesn't care about upgrades. But there's a difference between ignorance — not knowing why something is impactful or how it matters — and actual informed indifference. For the vast majority of smartphone owners, the former is the factor at play.

Next: Yes, the front-facing features of an OS update may not always be new or relevant to every Android make and model. And absolutely, Google has worked hard to make OS updates less all-important by deconstructing Android and pulling as many pieces as possible out of the operating system so they can be updated instantly and universally, bit by bit, all throughout the year. That's enormously significant.

But to say any of that suggests OS upgrades themselves simply don't matter anymore is glossing over a critical piece of the puzzle — specifically, all of the beneath-the-surface stuff we were just talking about a second ago. No matter how much Google may deconstruct the operating system, certain foundational elements tied to performance, security, and privacy can only be addressed in the OS itself.

Despite all the mitigating factors, in other words, the core OS absolutely still matters — and so, too, do the updates that maintain and improve it.

P is for perspective

Android P certainly isn't the first time any of this has been true. Most recently, Oreo introduced numerous important changes related to privacy and security — things that, again, aren't the most titillating topics to talk about but are immensely impactful to a phone's day-to-day operation (arguably more so than any buzzworthy feature addition). It also introduced the first form of native autofill functionality for password managers and a powerful system for opting out of specific types of notifications without muting an app entirely.

The difference with Oreo was that those elements came about alongside the update's more attention-grabbing features — and consequently, they got buried beneath the easier-to-focus-on front-facing items. With Android P in its current state, the under-the-hood stuff has the stage to itself for now, so there's no flashy headlining item monopolizing our attention and stealing the spotlight.

At the end of the day, it's all about perspective. Between standalone app updates and monthly security updates, Android has evolved to a point where OS updates are no longer the pivotal, wildly transformative entities they once were. And that's without a doubt a good thing.

But if you're deluding yourself into thinking upgrades don't matter at all anymore — or that companies treating them as afterthoughts and not getting around to providing them until well over half a year after their release is somehow acceptable — you're turning a blind eye to an important part of the mobile tech picture.

To a certain degree, deciding what device is right for you is always going to be a bit of a balancing act. For some people, other factors — the presence of expandable storage, support for wireless charging, or whatever the case may be — may genuinely prove to be higher priorities than timely and reliable post-sales software support. That's what choice is all about, and there's nothing wrong with making that type of informed decision.

Writing off upgrades entirely, however, or pretending they have no significance is the equivalent of putting your head in the sand. And unless you're an ostrich, that sure doesn't seem like a smart thing to do.*

* Android Intelligence is fully supportive of the ostrich community and in no way discriminates against ostriches or other flightless birds. If you are an ostrich, please don't kick or peck me. I love ostriches. Let me repeat: I LOVE OSTRICHES. This message has been approved by JR Raphael and the Council For Not Getting Pecked In The Noggin.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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