Justifying Android’s “Slow” Update Roll-outs

Justifying Android's Perhaps one of the most common complaints against Android by haters and lovers alike is that updates seem to take forever to make their way to the devices. Unless, of course, you have the latest Nexus device, which is typically the first to receive the latest Android update (usually even on the same day of the update announcement).

People who complain compare Android to iOS in this instance, where the majority of iOS devices receive the latest updates in a matter of weeks, while Android devices might not see an update for months at a time. But is it really fair to compare Android to iOS in this instance?

To begin my argument, I would like to point out the fact that Android and iOS use two entirely different models of distribution. Google and the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) develop the latest Android release and, when it is ready for the public, release it into the wild. From there, device manufacturers take the update and begin porting it to work on their devices.

Depending on the degree and intensity of the changes made in a particular Android release, it might take manufacturers weeks or months to properly port and test the update on a device. After all, I would rather have an update that works than one that is filled with glitches and bugs. Wouldn’t anybody, though?

Even after the manufacturers are done, the update usually passes through the wireless carrier, as well, where carriers tweak the system yet again to their liking. This is typically where the bloatware carrier apps are bundled into the system, but also where proprietary binaries that enable the device to talk to the network, such as Verizon with its proprietary CDMA network, are included into the build as well. Then, the process of rolling out the update across the carrier’s range of subscribers take place, the time of which depends entirely on how many devices are set to receive the update.

Apple, on the other hand, keeps everything about iOS contained. It develops the next iteration, but also is responsible for loading it onto the iPhone or iPad. This means that what occurred in two steps for Android (Google developing Android, then manufacturer porting it), occurs in one step for iOS, where the only clients are Apple devices anyway. This enables Apple to get updates for iOS pushed out to all of its devices much more quickly than Google can with Android. The Nexus devices are evidence of this, as they are “pure Google experience” devices, and the software that ships on them is shipped straight from Google. As a result, Nexus devices are updated quickly after a new Android release.

In a way, a good comparison for this is to liken Android to Linux distributions (it practically is one, after all). Distributions have a lot of moving parts, so the software included within them is generally pretty outdated by the time the next major release rolls around. For example, let’s use Debian and GNOME as a deeper example. Whenever a new release of GNOME is unleashed, there is quite a bit of lag time for the Debian maintainers to integrate it into the rest of the distribution. This is true for Android and the manufacturers that use it on their devices. Every time a new release is finished, it takes them time to get it up and running on their devices.

So should we be comparing Android to iOS when it comes to its update schedule, or to that of Linux distributions? Perhaps consumers should be made aware that when they purchase an Android device that is not in Google’s Nexus line, they are signing up for a longer release cycle.

Is it anyone’s fault that this release cycle is longer? Not really. That’s simply the way things are; the increased time consumers spend waiting are generally justified by the amount of time and effort manufacturers put in to polishing and testing their specific distributions of Android.

Is there anything Google can do to improve this process? Perhaps so. It can enforce its 18-month update guarantee for devices by making carriers and manufacturers contractually agree to such a guarantee, rather than leaving it simply as a promise of good faith. The rest of the job, I believe, falls on the manufacturers and the carriers.

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  • http://twitter.com/andr3wjacks0n andrew jackson

    I wonder what it would have been like if in the beginning Google made Nexus handsets and sold them directly like Apple does. They would have a GSM model and a CDMA model I wonder if Android would have been as popular.

    • http://eddieringle.com Eddie Ringle

      That’s what I’m wondering, also. I have an article in the works that delves deeper into this topic.

  • Raylusk

    Well let’s see a couple of big issues with this article. First at least with Ice Cream Sandwich and the Nexus S, it took over FIVE months for the phone to get updated. I wouldn’t call that quick especially when the Nexus S was one of those phones that had software that was shipped directly from Google. Second Google has complicated matters even worse by giving at least one carrier (Verizon here in the US) control over updates on the Galaxy Nexus. Another phone that is part of that series of phones that is supposed to get fast updates directly from Google. Third is how does Apple get around these supposed proprietary binaries that allow phones to talk directly to networks like Verizon’s? Sounds to me like just another excuse. As far as the branded software that carriers want on the phone, the iPhone has proved that the carriers can make apps and put them in the respective app stores so carrier involvement is unnecessary in the update process. Now I know some people will argue that phone manufactures need time to integrate their overlays onto their phones like HTC Sense. But again this can be done as apps and pushed out through the app store that is now called Google Play. Now the finally excuse is making the hardware work with the OS. Well we can use computers as an example for this by looking at how video and sound cards are made to work with the OS. All the phone manufactures have to do is have each of their part suppliers supply device drivers for the various components and this should greatly lessen the amount of development and testing time needed. There is simply no excuse for what is going on with android fragmentation unless the android OS is so poorly developed that it is a monster to adapt software to it.

  • dovidhalevi

    The problem is that the device manufacturers are not serious about the upgrades. Promises, promises. On my desktop, I upgrade the Linux as upgrades are available and bad-bug-free.

    Minimally, security oriented upgrades should be promulgated immediately for obvious reasons. Even in “stable” distros, these are available, though other supported code is not updated.

    My LG phone still has Froyo. They promised Gingerbread. ICS–neverneverland.

  • http://twitter.com/HarryMonmouth Harry Monmouth

    You’re quite right that it is not fair but even though it is not fair it has to be done.  It is not really fair to compare an HDD with an SSD but it has to be done because if you only compared HDDs with other HDDs then people who wanted extra speed would take the recommendation to get the faster HDD and then when they discover later that an SSD is a lot faster again they will consider your advice to have not been good.  

    Likewise with a car and a bicycle.  If lazy people who wanted to get places faster had a racing bike recommended as the better form of transport to their clunky old full sus mountain bike then when they later discover that they could have been driving there even faster sitting in a nice comfy car they will think the person who gave them a recommendation was and idiot.  

    Personally I really like the idea of Android and if it did what I wanted of it I would use nothing but Android.  Now if all your comparisons left out iOS I would probably go with Android but I know that I would not be as happy as I am with my iPhone because I have been there and the flaws of Android are exactly the sort of things that my personality type is unwilling to accept whereas the flaws of iOS although being inconvenient are things that I am far more prepared to put up with.  

    So although it is not fair to compare them on one feature alone it is something that has to be done.  If you want to paint a more accurate picture of the differences between the two systems you have to look at all aspects.  Maybe the OS does upgrade at a different rate but just make sure people are aware that there are other factors in the choice of which to go with.  That is the way to be fair, not by omission of information regarding competitors.