In Today’s Android World, Up-to-Date Software Is Only for the Privileged
If you’ve owned an Android phone, there’s a good chance you’ve faced software delays. There are several reasons why the latest version may not reach your phone on time. Until recently, you didn’t have to shell out top dollar for a phone to get instant Android security updates. But since last year, that’s not the case anymore — and you can blame it on the Google Pixel.
The Nexus Is Dead, Long Live the Nexus
Let’s step back a little. Since 2010, Google had been partnering with Android phone manufacturers to create “Nexus” branded smartphones. These phones were Google’s take on how Android phones should be. They were intended to be a reference device for developers and a solace for Android purists, thanks to the vanilla Android software, free of any manufacturer or carrier customizations (i.e. bloatware). And because the Nexus had a direct line to Google, they were also the first to receive the newest Android update.
The first three Nexus phones — namely the HTC Nexus One, Samsung Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus — sold at a high price tag comparable to the latest iPhone. But then, seven months after launching the Galaxy Nexus, its price surprisingly dropped from $700 first to $399, and then to $349! From this moment on, the Nexus line would gain fame for being phones that offered high-end specs and stock Android at a reasonable price. The LG Nexus 4 and Nexus 5 were a hit in the eyes of the consumer for sticking to that under-$400 price range while offering top-class internals.
And although the Motorola-made Nexus 6 wasn’t cheap in any way with that $649 launch price, Huawei’s Nexus 6P a year later was priced fairly well at $499. If that wasn’t enough, Google partnered with LG to release a Nexus 5X alongside the Nexus 6P for an affordable $379.
All this changed last year when the search giant essentially killed the Nexus lineup and decided to produce phones under their own Pixel brand. Not only did they look a bit like iPhones, their prices matched too — starting at $649 for the smaller Google Pixel and $769 for the bigger Pixel XL .
Apart from the dull design and lack of features like water resistance or stereo speakers, the Pixel phones were well-received by critics. The cameras really stood out and the software was buttery smooth. It was a testament to Google’s direct involvement in making the phone’s hardware and software, instead of simply working with a partner like during the Nexus days. The company also intends to create custom silicon instead of using off-the-shelf chips from Qualcomm for future Pixel phones. This will give Google similar benefits Apple gets by producing its A-series chips for the iPhone.
All this is great for someone okay with spending top dollar to get the best Android experience. But the Pixel product positioning, much like Microsoft’s Surface line of products, has left the average consumer who just wants a reasonably-priced phone and fast software updates with no choice.
What About Other Phones Running Stock Android?
There are phone makers like OnePlus, Motorola and even HTC that don’t tinker with Android’s default appearance, but rather just sprinkle some tweaks which they think are useful. But just because the UI on these phones looks like stock Android, there’s no guarantee of speedy Android updates.
For example, on August 22, 2016, Google officially released Android 7.0 Nougat. The OnePlus 3 got the update only by January 2, 2017, the unlocked Moto Z got it by February 2017, and the HTC 10 got it in December 2016. That’s anywhere between four to six months, and we’re only looking at the flagship models that launched the same year as Android Nougat. If you have a phone from a year or two before, then it can become an excruciatingly long wait. And most phone makers (including Google) only commit to providing updates for two years after the product launch, so if your device is older than that, you might as well forget about updates. In contrast, the iPhone 5s launched in 2013 is eligible for this year’s iOS 11 update.
Then there’s also the problem of wiping the slate clean each year with a new product launch. For example, after the iPhone 7 last year, the iPhone 6s sold well following a price drop. In countries like India, even the iPhone 6 is still widely available, in part thanks to it running the latest iOS 10, with a promised update to this year’s iOS 11.
But it’s not the same with Android. With Android, the previous year’s handsets fade into irrelevance once the current year’s successor takes over the throne. And buying a phone that’s slowly phasing out from the market could result in a tough time getting spares if something goes wrong. Whether Google will continue selling the Pixel 1 this year for a cheaper price tag after the Pixel 2 takes its place remains to be seen.
Google attempted to solve this problem. Apart from the Nexus, Google tried to create a similar system for the low-end with Android One in some countries, but the project pretty much flopped.
Why Are Software Updates Important?
Prima facie, it appears as if the general population doesn’t really care if their smartphone is running the newest Android version. But those who do care realize the value add of a new software update. For example, I thoroughly enjoy Alt-Tabbing between two apps by double-tapping the multitasking button in Android Nougat — something I couldn’t do on Android Marshmallow. Folks getting the Android O update this year can enjoy features like Smart Text Selection, Picture-in-Picture video mode, Autofill API, and more.
Software updates aren’t just about new features, they administer bug fixes and optimizations too. Since 2015, Google has pushed out monthly Android security updates for their own devices (until three years after a product’s launch), that others can choose to deploy on theirs too. This way, users don’t have to wait for a new version of Android to get important updates. And historical data does suggest that it took a long time for many phones to get the Android software update. Even today, last year’s Android 7.0 Nougat has a minor market share by Google’s own measurement.
Now, while many manufacturers try to diligently push these monthly security updates, it’s clear that older devices don’t get that kind of priority. For instance, my two-year-old Galaxy S6 didn’t get the June security update. If you check responses to this Twitter thread, you’ll see an ever sadder story with some older devices.
Security updates may not be as important to the average user, but with a surge in ransomware in recent times, and Android being the dominant mobile operating system, up-to-date software might just save the day.
Is There a Ray of Hope?
Today, it seems that if you want the fast Android updates and reliable security patches, you have no choice but to spend a pretty penny on those Pixel phones. There were rumors of a cheaper “Pixel 2B” in the making, but there’s no telling if it’s coming this year — if ever. A more probable hope would be for Google to continue selling the Pixel 1 at a cheaper price point along with the Pixel 2.
Do software updates matter to you? Is this the reason why you prefer iOS over Android? Let us know in the comments underneath.
Image Credit: gualtiero boffi via Shutterstock.com
Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.