Android Intelligence Analysis

The two words Motorola doesn't want you to read

Motorola's getting tons of positive press for its new Android phone launch this week, but two critical words are curiously missing from the conversation.

Motorola Edge Kaunch
Thad Zajdowicz, modified by IDG Comm (CC BY 2.0)

Android Intelligence Analysis

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Holy moly, have you heard? Motorola's getting back into the high-end Android flagship game — and by most counts, its new top-of-the-line, $999 Edge+ phone is quite the creation.

Heck, just look at these excerpts from the scores of early-impression serenades published around these here intertubes:

  • "The Motorola Edge+ feels like a true 2020 flagship smartphone"
  • "A unique device that stands out from the pack"
  • "Motorola’s most powerful phone in years"

Well, my goodness. Kinda makes you want to run out and scream "Hello, Moto" whilst thrusting the phone high above your head, doesn't it?

Motorola Edge+ Motorola

The Motorola Edge+ sure does look snazzy on the outside.

Before you commence any thrusting, though, hang on: As the suddenly active media relations department within Motorola is no doubt delighted to see, nearly all these overviews of the Edge+ fail to mention the two words that truly define the device — the words that provide every reason for every one of us to close our wallets, shrug with a knowing smile, and walk away. They're two words that'll almost certainly be treated as fine print by Motorola itself (if and when they're even included in any publicly accessible materials — which, as far as I can tell, they haven't been yet).

But make no mistake about it: They're two words that tell you all you need to know about the Edge+ and about Motorola's broader philosophy as an Android phone-maker.

I won't keep you waiting. The two words are: "one update."

One update. A single operating system update for a thousand-dollar phone. That's all Motorola is promising with its new Edge+ device: It'll bring this year's Android 11 release to the new high-priced flagship at some point — and then that's it.

I want to make this as unambiguous as possible: No one should buy this device. No one. Unless you for some reason love the idea of throwing away money on a phone that's guaranteed to become outdated and not optimally secure or maximally protective of your privacy within a matter of months, do not buy the Motorola Edge+. You're setting yourself up for frustration and telling Android device-makers in general that this kind of second-rate treatment of top-paying customers is acceptable — that they can get away with saving money by effectively saying "goodbye and good luck" once our billfolds are folded and our purchases are made.

Adding insult to injury is the way Motorola's working to position this phone in spite of that reality. The company's marketing materials and official product page call the Edge+ the "best phone for Android lovers, hands down" and wax poetic about its "best of Android" software experience. That little tidbit about the device receiving only a single Android operating system update and being abandoned by this fall? Yeah — not a peep about that.

That, suffice it to say, is not okay.

The Android upgrade downslide

Let's zoom out for a minute, because the bigger-picture perspective here is incredibly important. For context, most flagship-level Android phones come with two years of post-sales software support. It's a platform-wide standard that's been in place since about 2014.

The truth is that even two years isn't enough when we're talking about devices we spend several hundred to well over a thousand dollars on. And that's to say nothing of the fact that most Android manufacturers send those upgrades out inexcusably late — months upon months after their release — thereby unnecessarily extending the window in which your personal and/or work phone is not at the highest level of privacy, security, and performance available.

And despite the popular narrative to the contrary, the situation isn't actually getting much better. Not by any significant measure, anyway. The data speaks for itself. And Motorola, notably, is among the lowest of the bottom-of-the-barrel performers, coming in with a lovely round 0% "F" score on my latest Android Upgrade Report Card (and with similar results in other report cards before that).

The sole exception to the rule is Google, not surprisingly, which provides a full three years of timely and reliable updates for its own self-made Pixel products. Even that amount of time could arguably be better — and as I noted in my most recent newsletter, recent rumors of Google working to develop its own custom smartphone chip give me hope that an even further-extended support period for Pixels could eventually be possible.

But back to Motorola: What's ultimately happening here is that the company is quietly opting to disregard and violate an already-minimal platform-wide standard of post-sales support — for no apparent reason and without so much as even trying to justify it. The main assumption, I've gotta imagine, is that most people probably won't notice those two little words or give 'em any real thought. And let's be honest: It's a reasonable assumption to make, given the miniscule amount of attention Android upgrade performance tends to receive alongside a phone's more superficial qualities.

And you know what? To a certain degree, I get it. Post-sales software support isn't a sexy or easy-to-understand subject and is far less eye-catching than, say, a snazzy-lookin' "waterfall" display or a shiny-colored exterior. But OS updates are actually way more consequential to your day-to-day use of a device than any of that other stuff, especially over the entire time that you own a phone. The reason is something you won't see emphasized in a whole lot of places: In addition to their more front-facing elements, Android OS updates include a significant number of enhancements to the under-the-hood systems that allow your phone to operate optimally, securely, and generally with your best interests in mind.

Let's think about the current Android 10 release, for example. That software introduced the critically important ability to limit an app's access to your location to only when the app is actively in use. It brought about greater control over how apps can access your photos, videos, and other files along with better protection from apps taking over your screen and expanded protection of your unique device identifiers. And all of that's only scratching the surface.

The upcoming Android 11 update will pick up where 10 left off and give you even more control over significant app permissions. It'll pull more critical software pieces out of the operating system, too, and make them easily updatable via the Play Store, among other things.

The take-home message is this: Even if you don't care about the flashier front-facing elements, Android updates absolutely do matter. And using a phone that isn't reasonably up to date with both major OS releases and the smaller monthly security patches that supplement 'em is not in any way advisable — for anyone, really, but for business users in particular. (And as for those patches, by the way, Moto is apparently even cheaping out there and reportedly planning to provide those only quarterly, instead of monthly, and only for two years instead of the typical three on that front.)

All you need is a little simple division to see how quickly the effects from this start to add up.

A smarter approach to smartphone value

I'm not much of an algebraist — I actually just had to go look that word up to make sure it was even a real thing — but I occasionally like to do a little smart smartphone math to figure out a device's actual value. That lets you see exactly how much you'll pay per month of owning the phone, assuming you keep it for the entire period in which it's fully supported and thus fully advisable to use.

Under such a mindset, a device like the Galaxy S20, which starts at $1,000 and receives two years of guaranteed Android updates, ends up costing you about 42 bucks a month (provided you bought it close to the time that it came out, which is always your best bet in terms of maximizing value).

A phone like the Pixel 4, which starts at $800 and receives three years of guaranteed Android updates, comes out to $22 a month. And a phone like the Pixel 4a, which is expected to cost $400 and receive those same three years of guaranteed updates, costs a mere 11 bucks a month over the course of its advisable ownership period.

So what about the new Motorola Edge+? Brace yourself: With its thousand-dollar price tag and single year of software support, that device will effectively cost you $83 for every month you own it — with the assumption that you really shouldn't hang onto it for more than a year, given how outdated and inadvisable to use it'll be by next summer.

Here's how that all works out in terms of annual ownership costs:

Android Cost Comparison JR

Kindly click Mr. Image to make him bigger.

Quite the contrast, eh?

Goodbye, Moto

Sadly, none of this should come as a surprise. We saw signs of Motorola scaling back its already-poor software support last year, when the company launched its Moto Z4 with the promise of only a single year of Android OS updates. That phone, however, cost $500 — so while it was still unacceptable (and still made the device unjustifiably expensive in terms of actual time-of-ownership value), it wasn't nearly as grievous as what we're seeing now with the new Edge+ flagship.

Still, the basic situation is almost identical to what happened back then, so it only seems appropriate to end with the same closing thought I coughed up that month:

The Android landscape is constantly evolving, and now more than ever, as Android device-makers try to cut corners by shying away from established practices and norms, the responsibility falls upon you as an educated and practical-minded phone-owner to figure out what you're actually getting with any given phone — not just in terms of first-day features but in terms of the device's entire likely life span — and then to make your purchasing decisions accordingly.

As has always been the case with Android, the option for optimal software support most certainly does exist. It's simply up to you to decide how much of a priority that is for you and then to choose a device that provides the type of experience and longer-term value you want.

The power, as usual, is in your hands. Use it wisely.

UPDATE (5/12/20): Nineteen days after the publication of this story, Motorola contacted me via email to inform me that it had revisited its stance and would now provide "at least two Android OS upgrades" to owners of its Edge+ device. Sometimes, enough noisy voices end up getting heard. Thanks for helping to amplify this and send a clear message to all Android device-makers that this kind of corner-cutting is not acceptable and won't be tolerated.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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