Here’s what needs to happen next with Android upgrades


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.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.



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