Android Intelligence Analysis

Here's what needs to happen next with Android upgrades

For once, we're seeing a positive change within the realm of Android upgrades — but we aren't out of the woods yet.

Android Upgrades
Google/JR Raphael

Android Intelligence Analysis

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It's a rare day when I get to write about Android upgrades and actually be, dare I say it, almost optimistic.

You know the drill by now, right? Android upgrades are by and large a hot, sticky mess — and they have been pretty much since the get-go. Even when we see some manner of improvement from a company whose name doesn't rhyme with Schmoogle, the story is almost always more nuanced and less impressive than it appears — because, as I've put it before, when the bar's been set embarrassingly low for so long, "not entirely horrible" can suddenly seem grand.

To be fair, it isn't all as dire as it seems. Google's worked hard to pull tons of critical pieces out of the actual Android operating system and make 'em updatable via the Play Store, where updates can be sent out frequently and universally, without the need for any manufacturer or carrier involvement. Any random month could see a level of system-like updates for Android that's comparable to a major OS upgrade on iOS (and that, by the by, is why Apple-to-Android upgrade comparisons are utterly meaningless). Since 2015, all of that has also been supplemented by standalone monthly security patches (though the delivery of those isn't exactly equal across the board).

Still, the formal Android operating system upgrades absolutely do matter, even if they aren't as all-important as they once were. And this month, we're seeing two signs of promising, if long overdue, progress: First, Samsung — traditionally the king of subpar post-sales software support — has committed to providing a full three years of OS updates for a handful of specific phone models from this point forward. And second, Microsoft — Android's newest and arguably most intriguing hardware player — has committed to three years for its upcoming device as well.

Make no mistake about it: These are commendable and consequential changes. I mean, heck, they effectively make the lives of Samsung's and Microsoft's Android products 50% longer than they'd have been with the previous, more typical two-year upgrade standard. But they're also just scratching the surface of what really needs to happen for Android upgrades to move out of their still-pitiful state and into where they oughta be right now, nearly 12 years into the platform's existence.

Specifically, we need to see two critical improvements — ideally over the coming year:

1. A commitment to timeliness

The true trouble with Android upgrades is less about whether they're delivered and more about when they're provided (with a handful of unfortunate exceptions, at least — hi, Motorola!). And on that front, despite some crowing to the contrary, the situation hasn't seen much meaningful progress.

To wit: Outside of Google and OnePlus, no major U.S. Android manufacturer got Android 10 onto its flagship U.S. phone in less than a hundred days — over a quarter of a year from the software's release. Samsung took 106 days, LG took 129, Motorola took 189, and HTC is somehow still pending, nearly an entire year later.

The numbers are even worse when you look at the companies' previous-gen flagships — top-dollar phones that are only a year old and should still be supported at an exceptional level. With those devices, Samsung took 147 days, LG took 259, and both Moto and HTC are still pending. Even OnePlus, which did better than anyone other than Google all around, took an all-too-poky 93 days to get Android 10 onto its previous-gen (and, in its case, not-even-one-year-old) flagships. And let's not even get started on the tardiness for midrange or budget-level phones, in the rare instances that such devices even get updated.

No matter how you look at it, the low-priority treatment of these important system updates is just downright pathetic. It's unacceptable. These companies can — and should — do better. And they absolutely have the resources to make that happen, if they ever so chose.

That's more true for Samsung than anyone, given its sheer scale and the vast resources and finances that come with that. But will any of these companies ever actually take the initiative to improve and provide upgrades to their users on a reasonably timely basis? Quite honestly, I'm skeptical.

Time and time again, most of these companies have shown us that they simply don't give a damn — and really, who can blame 'em? Getting updates out quickly costs more than doing it at a tortoise-like pace, as you have to make it a priority and devote more people to the task. And, as we've talked about tons of times before, timely ongoing software updates actually work against a typical phone-maker's interests, as they make existing phones seem newer, better, and more current and thus make their owners less likely to want to run out and drop hundreds of dollars on a shiny new model they probably don't need.

Even when Google's gone out of its way to make the actual act of updating devices easier and less resource-intensive, as it's been doing with its Project Treble effort over the past few years, the resulting improvements in delivery times have been modest at best.

There is one possible glimmer of sunshine here, though — and that's Microsoft. Typically, Google has been the sole exception to the rule of "updates work against a company's interests." Why? Simple: Google's business model is more closely focused on software and services than hardware, and it directly benefits from keeping you online and active in its ecosystem as much as possible. That benefit is present even if you don't spend money on new devices all that often.

And, you guessed it, Microsoft is very much the same way. That's exactly why I've said the most interesting Android question of the year is whether Microsoft will be able to shake up the sad state of Android upgrades. If any company has the motivation and the structure to make timely post-sales software support a priority, Microsoft is it. Now we'll have to see if it delivers — and if it does, whether that places added pressure on any other Android device-makers to follow suit.

And all of that, m'darling, is only part one.

2. An even better commitment to longevity — from Google

Google isn't like other Android device-makers. It is, both in theory and in practice, the platform's standard bearer. As the company that creates the software and that has the most to gain from its widespread adoption, Google is uniquely positioned to offer an experience that's above and beyond what anyone else is doing.

And Google has most certainly done that — both with the timeliness factor, where its Pixel devices continue to provide the only option for getting near-instant software updates on Android and to have timely updates be an integral part of a phone's promise, and with the longevity factor, where it established an above-par three-year standard for support with its self-made smartphones.

Now that other companies are catching up to the latter part of that pairing, it's time for Google to step it up again — with its flagship Pixel products, at the very least.

I mean, think about it: A three-year guarantee of reliable, delay-free updates for the $349 Pixel 4a is pretty incredible and something no other Android device-maker comes close to matching in that price range. Now the high-end Pixel needs to adjust for inflation, so to speak, and start offering something similarly standard-setting for its class in this era. At this point, if you're paying $600 or $700 for a top-tier Google-made phone, you should know that phone will last and remain fully advisable to use for a solid four to five years.

It'd be a killer move for us as users, of course, but it could be self-serving, too — by giving Google a great marketing point to convey the value of its Pixel phones and by providing a better experience that'd encourage people to use their devices and thus be online even more, which ultimately benefits Google in the long run. As a side perk, it'd also negate Apple's ability to tout the length of support life as an advantage of an iPhone over an Android device (even if that comparison is actually a little misleading).

Think this part seems as unrealistic as our other upgrade improvement wish? I wouldn't be so sure. First of all, reports suggest Google could be ready to put its own self-made processors into Pixels as early as next year. That'd make it easier and more feasible for the company to extend its software support window for those phones, as it'd no longer have to rely on outside providers like Qualcomm to keep making sure the chips play nicely with new releases.

Second, there was a time when Google's Pixel phones came with only the standard platform-wide two-year guarantee for operating system updates. Back in the fall of 2016, following the first Pixel phone's debut, a stunningly handsome (and astonishingly modest) writer put out a call for that to change — noting that with the Pixel, Google was "in a unique position to raise the stakes on the standard upgrade promise":

If the Pixel is going to represent the very best of Google and Android, as it's intended to, Google should bring things up a step from the baseline and make the Pixel stand out not just for its commitment to timeliness but also for its commitment to longevity. Promise Pixel owners a full three years of OS updates, Google, and watch the complaints about the phone's price simmer down considerably.

An extra year of updates would show that this is a phone meant to last — that it really is a cut above the rest. It'd show that Google is concerned with long-term consumer satisfaction over short-term sales. It'd show that in this sort of holistic scenario, updates don't have to be a source of frustration on any level.

That reasoning sounds eerily familiar, doesn't it? And we all know what happened then: One year later, with the Pixel 2, Google committed to that exact change.

Now, we can't necessarily assume a direct line of causation, of course — but that's not even the point. The point is that sometimes, regardless of where its awareness comes from, Google does right by its users and shows it's willing to rethink its upgrade policies and remain current with the ever-changing circumstances around its devices. And maybe, just maybe, we'll see the same thing happen here.

I'm cautiously optimistic that could happen, even if I suspect the other improvement is mostly just wishful thinking. And at the end of the day, you know what? That one change would be enough. As has always been the case, Android is all about options — and an optimal software support experience has always been available on the platform. It's just always been up to you to choose a device that provides it.

If Google manages to lengthen the support window for Pixels, the same could soon be said for an extended device lifespan, too. And Goog almighty, would that ever be one heck of an interesting option to have.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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