The Android news cycle is replete with news of updates, delays, and abandoned phones. A casual observer would get the impression that all Android OEMs are actively and maliciously seeking to disenfranchise users. This is apparently the case made by a recent, and compelling infographic you might have seen online.
The creator of this chart traced the history of a number of Android phones and sorted out how old the software was. While there are some good points made here, it also ignores the reality of how people choose smartphones and the nature of early Android devices. Let’s break it down.
Timing is everything
The author should be commended for his fervor in seeking out the details on all these devices, and we would not want to demand more work of him, but the timeline stops too conveniently. We see here devices released through mid 2010, but that cuts out the Droid X and Droid 2. These are two devices that were very popular and still enjoy support. They might never get Android 4.0, but they would alter the graph noticeably.
Because of the time frame investigated, the Android ecosystem is cast in a much worse light than is entirely fair. The list is dominated by devices out of the dark ages of Android, when poor hardware made updates largely unworkable. If devices from the rest of 2010 were added, the picture would change. Phones like the previously mentioned Motorola devices and other Droid phones reached Gingerbread. The T-Mobile G2 was a 2010 phones, and it too eventually reached current software.
We do grant that even if the author extended the graph up to recent phones, there would still be glaring issues. Some phones launch with old software, and some seem to immediately drop off the supported device list. But why?
Early end of life
This is a problem that is rightly criticized, but it’s not all the fault of Android. When a phone is being sold, it makes sense to update it. When a device passes into obscurity, there is no one left to pay for those updates to be developed. Carriers are not too keen on adding features to a phone that they no longer sell. This is an issue mainly because of the way phones are sold on a 2-year contract.
It is unlikely that any Android device will get good updates for a full two years, and many users don't buy phones when they have just been released. That means a user is going to end up, at some point, stuck with a phone on old software, but is still under contract. The way to change this is to demand that the carrier that supports your phone actually supports it, and works with the OEM to update. Google makes everything the OEMs and carriers could need available, but they do not force anyone to update.
We can insist on these updates, but it is not the right of users to get feature updates. By taking the subsidy on a device that is (insanely) priced at $500-700, you agree to sign up for two years of service and walk out the door with a $200 phone. You are not paying for updates, but for the phone as is. We can get as upset as anyone when a device is left behind, but it is the carriers that need to be convinced that users deserve updates.
Hardware, and when an update isn’t an update
As we mentioned above, many of the phones in this graph are old; really old by Android standards. The open Android ecosystem moves incredibly fast, and device specs don’t hold up long. Take a look at a number of the poorly updated phones on the list. The Motorola Cliq, the Moto Devour, the Samsung Behold II, and the Samsung Moment were all low-end devices running on an ancient Qualcomm chipset. All of these phones were basically a G1 inside.
The failure of these devices is not a failure of Android per se; it’s failure due to bad design choices. Luckily, almost no one bought these devices because of those same poor choices. The OEMs involved actually worked to update these phones, and it became apparent an update would not have been advantageous.
The hardware just wasn’t there to properly run newer software. Motorola tried to get the Cliq XT updated, but abandoned the project when performance was worse than the old version. Samsung too had to eat some humble pie when the Behold II failed to live up to newer versions of Android. For all the anger over missing updates, these phones worked better without them.
When a phone is just not very good, updating can be worse than not. The chart in question pits Android handsets against the iPhone, but there are some iPhone 3G owners that might wish Apple hadn’t pushed iOS4 to them. The performance issues were no secret on the internet. The drive to keep its platform unified at all costs actually hurt the user experience for some users of older phones.
Basically, when a phone doesn’t get updates, it’s usually not Google or Android you should be mad at. It’s the specific device and the poor hardware the manufacturer chose.
Not all phones are created equal
The chart makes a fundamental mistake in comparing all Android devices to the iPhone, which is Apple’s premiere, high-end device. There is no cheaper iPhone that could compare to the Motorola Backflip. No one that cares about device updates bought that phone; that’s just not what it is.
Like it or not, some phones are not designed to be a 2-year project for an OEM. People buy them when they don’t know about phones, and they just want something cheap. You cannot pick up a $50 or free device and expect that it’s a long-term investment. As controversial as this might be, we like it that way.
Development resources should be focused on phones that people spent more on, and that are more likely to be owned by those that know what version of Android they have. The average Backflip user doesn’t know what version of Android they run, and probably thinks Gingerbread is just for cookies. Not everyone cares about software updates, and not every device needs them.
There are times when a phone should get an update, and it just isn’t. The Droid Charge is still on Android 2.2, and that is ridiculous. This is the real issue with Android updates, not that the HTC Hero was only updated once. When a phone was sold as high-end, it should not languish for months on end. But likewise, it should not launch on old software.
Android lets manufacturers make all kinds of phones, and some of them are low-end. We need to realize that, and know that they might not get updates. If you bought a $50 iPhone 3GS a few weeks ago, would it be reasonable to expect two years of updates? Probably not, and the same goes for an Android phone with similarly slow internals and a low price.
This infographic makes some points, as indicated above, very well. But it’s not the first to make those points, and actually goes off the rails discussing things like the fact that Android phone prices often end in 99-cents, as in $199.99. That is not, as the author points out, a warning sign of being "nickel and dimed"; it’s just confirmation bias.
Lead image via flickr user louish