The announcement that Nexus One users won’t be getting upgraded to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich led some to justifiably question Google’s support of their devices. I look at it a little differently: Nexus One owners are lucky. I’ve been researching the history of OS updates on Android phones and Nexus One users have fared much, much better than most Android buyers.
I went back and found every Android phone shipped in the United States1 up through the middle of last year. I then tracked down every update that was released for each device - be it a major OS upgrade or a minor support patch - as well as prices and release & discontinuation dates. I compared these dates & versions to the currently shipping version of Android at the time. The resulting picture isn’t pretty - well, not for Android users:
Other than the original G1 and MyTouch, virtually all of the millions of phones represented by this chart are still under contract today. If you thought that entitled you to some support, think again:
- 7 of the 18 Android phones never ran a current version of the OS.
- 12 of 18 only ran a current version of the OS for a matter of weeks or less.
- 10 of 18 were at least two major versions behind well within their two year contract period.
- 11 of 18 stopped getting any support updates less than a year after release.
- 13 of 18 stopped getting any support updates before they even stopped selling the device or very shortly thereafter.
- 15 of 18 don’t run Gingerbread, which shipped in December 2010.
- In a few weeks, when Ice Cream Sandwich comes out, every device on here will be another major version behind.
- At least 16 of 18 will almost certainly never get Ice Cream Sandwich.
Also worth noting that each bar in the chart starts from the first day of release - so it only gets worse for people who bought their phone late in its sales period.
Why Is This So Bad?
This may be stating the obvious but there are at least three major reasons.
Consumers Get Screwed
Ever since the iPhone turned every smartphone into a blank slate, the value of a phone is largely derived from the software it can run and how well the phone can run it. When you’re making a 2 year commitment to a device, it’d be nice to have some way to tell if the software was going to be remotely current in a year or, heck, even a month. Turns out that’s nearly impossible - here are two examples:
The Samsung Behold II on T-Mobile was the most expensive Android phone ever and Samsung promoted that it would get a major update to Eclair at least. But at launch the phone was already two major versions behind — and then Samsung decided not to do the update after all, and it fell three major OS versions behind. Every one ever sold is still under contract today.
The Motorola Devour on Verizon launched with a Megan Fox Super Bowl ad, while reviews said it was “built to last and it delivers on features.” As it turned out, the Devour shipped with an OS that was already outdated. Before the next Super Bowl came around, it was three major versions behind. Every one ever sold is still under contract until sometime next year.
Developers Are Constrained
Besides the obvious platform fragmentation problems, consider this comparison: iOS developers, like Instapaper’s Marco Arment, waited patiently until just this month to raise their apps’ minimum requirement to the 11 month old iOS 4.2.1. They can do so knowing that it’s been well over 3 years since anyone bought an iPhone that couldn’t run that OS. If developers apply that same standard to Android, it will be at least 2015 before they can start requiring 2010’s Gingerbread OS. That’s because every US carrier is still selling - even just now introducing2 - smartphones that will almost certainly never run Gingerbread and beyond. Further, those are phones still selling for actual upfront money - I’m not even counting the generally even more outdated & presumably much more popular free phones.
It seems this is one area the Android/Windows comparison holds up: most app developers will end up targeting an ancient version of the OS in order to maximize market reach.
Security Risks Loom
In the chart, the dashed line in the middle of each bar indicates how long that phone was getting any kind of support updates - not just major OS upgrades. The significant majority of models have received very limited support after sales were discontinued. If a security or privacy problem popped up in old versions of Android or its associated apps (i.e. the browser), it’s hard to imagine that all of these no-longer-supported phones would be updated. This is only less likely as the number of phones that manufacturers would have to go back and deal with increases: Motorola, Samsung, and HTC all have at least 20 models each in the field already, each with a range of carriers that seemingly have to be dealt with individually.
Why Don’t Android Phones Get Updated?
That’s a very good question. Obviously a big part of the problem is that Android has to go from Google to the phone manufacturers to the carriers to the devices, whereas iOS just goes from Apple directly to devices. The hacker community (e.g. CyanogenMod, et cetera) has frequently managed to get these phones to run the newer operating systems, so it isn’t a hardware issue.
It appears to be a widely held viewpoint3 that there’s no incentive for smartphone manufacturers to update the OS: because manufacturers don’t make any money after the hardware sale, they want you to buy another phone as soon as possible. If that’s really the case, the phone manufacturers are spectacularly dumb: ignoring the 2 year contract cycle & abandoning your users isn’t going to engender much loyalty when they do buy a new phone. Further, it’s been fairly well established that Apple also really only makes money from hardware sales, and yet their long term update support is excellent (see chart).
In other words, Apple’s way of getting you to buy a new phone is to make you really happy with your current one, whereas apparently Android phone makers think they can get you to buy a new phone by making you really unhappy with your current one. Then again, all of this may be ascribing motives and intent where none exist - it’s entirely possible that the root cause of the problem is just flat-out bad management (and/or the aforementioned spectacular dumbness).
A Price Observation
All of the even slightly cheaper phones are much worse than the iPhone when it comes to OS support, but it’s interesting to note that most of the phones on this list were actually not cheaper than the iPhone when they were released. Unlike the iPhone however, the “full-priced” phones are frequently discounted in subsequent months. So the “low cost” phones that fueled Android’s generally accepted price advantage in this period were basically either (a) cheaper from the outset, and ergo likely outdated & terribly supported or (b) purchased later in the phone’s lifecycle, and ergo likely outdated & terribly supported.
Also, at any price point you’d better love your rebates. If you’re financially constrained enough to be driven by upfront price, you can’t be that excited about plunking down another $100 cash and waiting weeks or more to get it back. And sometimes all you’re getting back is a “$100 Promotion Card" for your chosen provider. Needless to say, the iPhone has never had a rebate.
Along similar lines, a very small but perhaps telling point: the price of every single Android phone I looked at ended with 99 cents - something Apple has never done (the iPhone is $199, not $199.99). It’s almost like a warning sign: you’re buying a platform that will nickel-and-dime you with ads and undeletable bloatware, and it starts with those 99 cents. And that damn rebate form they’re hoping you don’t send in.
Notes on the chart and data
Why stop at June 2010?
I’m not going to. I do think that having 15 months or so of history gives a good perspective on how a phone has been treated, but it’s also just a labor issue - it takes a while to dredge through the various sites to determine the history of each device. I plan to continue on and might also try to publish the underlying table with references. I also acknowledge that it’s possible I’ve missed something along the way.
Android Release Dates
For the major Android version release dates, I used the date at which it was actually available on a normal phone you could get via normal means. I did not use the earlier SDK release date, nor the date at which ROMs, hacks, source, et cetera were available.
Outside the US
Finally, it’s worth noting that people outside the US have often had it even worse. For example, the Nexus One didn’t go on sale in Europe until 5 months after the US, the Droid/Milestone FroYo update happened over 7 months later there, and the Cliq never got updated at all outside of the US.
Yes, AT&T committed to Gingerbread updates for its 2011 Android phones, but only those that had already been released at the time of the July 25 press release. The Impulse doesn’t meet that criterion. Nor does the Sharp FX Plus.↩
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