Android Upgrades

Hold the pitchforks! 2 overlooked realities about Android upgrades

Yes, Android upgrades are a mess — but in bemoaning the real problems, too many people ignore the broader realities around them.

Android Upgrade Perspective
Robert Couse-Baker (CC BY 2.0)

Gang, we need to talk.

Over the past few weeks, as we've been getting into all the ins and outs of Android upgrades, I've heard some pretty troubling reactions.

It started with my annual Android Upgrade Report Card, which found the worst overall performance I've ever measured from Android device-makers when it comes to getting OS updates into the hands of their highest-paying customers. That point was driven home by my follow-up piece, which analyzed four full years' worth of upgrade delivery data to illustrate just how consistent and significant of a trend the downward spiral has become.

It was a tweet I sent around the time of Android P's arrival, though, that really set things off:

Android Upgrades Tweet Twitter

Boy, were people peeved. And for good reason.

Along with the understandable annoyance about the poky progress and apparent indifference of most Android manufacturers, though, I heard a couple of responses that left my eyebrows comically raised.

The first revolved around comparisons between the Android upgrade situation and that of iOS, with people either pointing out the differences (in a rather pointed manner) or noting how the lack of timely upgrades was the reason they left Android altogether for more, erm, "magical" pastures.

The second was a more generalized dismissal of Android as an entity because of the upgrade situation. This one happened in some colorful ways, too — like one guy declaring Android as a whole to be a complete "dumpster fire" as a result of the unreliable rollouts.

Both responses made me realize it was time to step back and, as I'm wont to do, provide some much needed perspective. Consider it a friendly reminder of things that should by now be obvious but yet consistently escape the conversation whenever this subject comes up.

Ready?

Overlooked reality #1: You absolutely can have timely and reliable ongoing OS updates on Android

This, I think, is the biggest thing people discussing Android upgrades in a critical sense fail to recognize. Yes, Apple rolls out iOS updates to all of its devices quickly and universally following a release. And it's no surprise: Apple creates all of its hardware and thus has end-to-end control over the entire experience for every single iOS product.

Guess what, though? That's also the case with Google's Pixel phones. The difference is simply that Android is a much larger ecosystem than iOS, with significantly more choice — and the Pixel phones, as such, are just one small part of the platform's picture.

Android's open nature has always been a bit of a double-edged sword. It allows companies like Samsung, LG, and HTC to take Google's core software and mold it into whatever they like — which can be good for diversity as well as for intraplatform competition and the innovation that frequently results from such an environment — but it also means each individual player ends up with its own flavor of the operating system and thus its own responsibility for keeping that software up to date.

Pixel phones, however, are essentially the iPhone equivalent within that field. They provide a "holistic" experience, with the same company controlling every aspect of their existence. They get fast, frequent, and reliable updates directly from that company — both with OS releases, major and incremental, and with monthly security patches — and they get those updates for a minimum of three years (!), which is a full year longer than the standard (and often theoretical) Android flagship guarantee.

What's my point? Simple: Suggesting that you can't have a good upgrade experience on Android is woefully inaccurate. You most certainly can; you just have to choose a device that provides that feature.

Just like Apple, Google presently offers one such flagship model each year, in a couple of different sizes. But unlike iOS, that isn't your only option. Android also gives you a zillion other possibilities, if you determine upgrades aren't your top priority — or if, like so much of the phone-buying public, you aren't fully informed about why upgrades matter and what choices are available.

At the end of the day, it's up to you to decide what compromises you're willing to accept and what type of experience you want to have.

(Speaking of choices, don't forget, too, that Google's Android One program basically offers a scaled-down version of the Pixel promise, with more midrange and budget-level phone options. Particularly with Nokia's new role in the effort, it's something worth watching.)

Overlooked reality #2: The phrase "OS upgrade" means wildly different things on Android and iOS

In discussing Android and Apple OS upgrades, you hear a lot about how Apple provides updates to its iPhones for a full five years. While there's been some fluctuation in that over time, it's mostly an accurate statement (depending on how you want to count).

It also, however, comes with a couple of important asterisks — especially when it's being brought up in relation to Android as a comparison.

First, Apple's iOS updates frequently give older devices only a fraction of the features available on a new release. And on top of that, it's pretty much a given that whenever a new iOS update comes out, people with iPhones more than a couple years old will complain about how the update completely broke their device and made it unusable. With those caveats in mind, saying a phone is "supported" for five years only means so much.

Even more broadly, though, a huge part of each iOS update revolves around updates to system-level apps — things like Messages, Photos, Apple Music, Siri, Apple Maps, and Apple Mail. Those same sorts of apps are serviced year-round on Android independent of OS releases, thanks to Google's ongoing deconstruction of the operating system.

At this point, in fact, pretty much every non-foundational piece of Android exists as an unbundled, standalone app — 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 recently launched Google Play Protect system).

Most of those elements are updated on a near-monthly basis — and since those updates happen through the Play Store, they reach every Android user immediately, without the involvement of any third-party players. As I've noted before, any random month could see a level of system-like updates across Android that's comparable to a major OS upgrade on iOS. 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.

Now, don't misread what I'm getting at here: Android OS upgrades absolutely do still matter. They contain foundational improvements related to areas like performance, security, and privacy that can't be handled on a piece-by-piece basis. And there's no excuse for major device-makers to be taking well over six months to deliver such significant software updates to their devices — particularly when it comes to their top-tier flagship products.

But to say some manufacturers' poor performance with upgrades is indicative of the entire ecosystem or to try to make a direct comparison between Android upgrades and iOS upgrades is turning a blind eye to significant parts of the picture. I'm all for doling out criticism when it's warranted (as I hope is plainly evident by now), but let's do it in a way that doesn't ignore large swaths of reality and paint a misleading portrait of what's actually happening.

Sign up for JR's new weekly newsletter to get this column along with bonus tips, personal recommendations, and other exclusive extras delivered to your inbox.

AI Newsletter

[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

5 power user tips for Microsoft OneNote
  
Shop Tech Products at Amazon