No one can accuse Google of resting on its laurels. As proprietor and developer of the world most popular mobile operating system, it would be fairly easy for the internet giant to leave well enough alone and simply provide modest, iterative updates to the platform with relatively few innovative, sometimes risky, features. Yet since September 2008, when the first Android 1.0 device (the HTC Dream) launched at API level 1, Google has revamped the firmware in fairly major ways a total of 20 times — Lollipop 5.0 was introduced in November 2014 at API level 21. The Android of today looks and feels almost nothing like the Android of yesteryear, but with the PC-style, multi-OEM ecosystem Google chose to adopt, comes a steep price: the achingly slow roll out of new versions.
There are two competing models when it comes to consumer electronics ecosystems, and both have their advantages. Google picked a route long favored by Microsoft, which was to concentrate solely on the software aspect of the equation (allowing it to control the mobile ad and app markets), and either giving or licensing the operating system to so-called white box partners, who produce the actual hardware which runs the OS and is sold to the end user, the consumer. This model allows a platform to quickly scale out as dozens or even hundreds of manufacturers get on board, rapidly increasing the developer’s market share while offering the public a wide selection of devices to choose from.
The other model, most famously favored by Apple (and, somewhat ironically, partially adopted late-in-the-game by Microsoft with its post-Windows Mobile, Windows Phone reboot), is characterized by a high level of vertical integration. In Apple’s case, this means developing not only the core platform as well as the bevy of services that users have come to expect from a modern electronic appliance, but actually manufacturing some or all of the necessary hardware as well. Microsoft initially tried to have a foot in both camps, offering the software and services bundled with Windows Phone, and leaving the device production to its traditional mobile partners, but with the purchase and onboarding of Nokia, has found itself the largest OEM of products which run on its platform.
One overwhelming advantage to tight vertical integration of the ecosystem is the ease in which updates to the platform can be rolled out. In the mobile world, especially in the US — where network operators are the gatekeepers separating manufacturer from consumer — these carriers serve as an extra layer of bureaucracy for both models, but still leave the Apples of the world with a decided leg up when it comes to upgrading existing devices on the market. Historical update adoption records bear this out: five months after it was introduced, iOS 8 was running on 69% of devices still in use, and that was actually a decrease from the rate iOS 7 saw after the same amount of time had passed.
Android, on the other hand, with its plethora of OEMs, is hindered by what has come to be derisively known as fragmentation; that is to say, its popularity has increased the number of manufacturers to the point that devices are released with wildly varied specs and levels of support. Whereas some OEMs, like HTC, make a firm commitment to upgrading all its recent products within a set amount of time following a major version release (90 days, in HTC’s case), many others use a secretive, often puzzling set of rules and timelines when it comes to upgrading its prior customers. This has led to Android updates rolling out, ecosystem-wide, much more slowly than competing iPhones are accustomed to.
Google released the latest flavor of Android, Lollipop 5.0, in November of last year. About three months later, Lollipop accounts for just 1.6% of the devices which use the Play Store in a given week. Even worse, that figure includes both upgraded handsets as well as new devices being sold running Lollipop out of the box — meaning that the percentage of existing devices which have received the update is even less than 1.6%. This is no anomaly: as the table below makes clear, Android upgrade adoption is habitually quite low in the first few months, with the Lollipop roll out actually doing fairly well compared to KitKat, Ice Cream Sandwich, and some of the Jellybean builds.
Eventually, however, a solid percentage of devices end up running the most current version of Android, but that has as much to do with sales of new handsets and tablets as it does with the complex upgrade apparatus. Even if Google seeds a given version of the platform in a very timely manner (weeks or months ahead of its commercial release), and even if those OEMs dedicate significant resources to tailoring and skinning those builds to their own specifications, most users must still wait for a third actor, the carriers, to thoroughly test each package, add its own customizations, and push the final ROM to devices in the wild. It is a cumbersome, drawn-out process, but also one that seems nearly unavoidable in a procedure with so many entities involved.
Is there anything that could speed up this process? The unfortunate answer is that there is no panacea here, but consumers do have a bit of wiggle room if they want to ensure speedier updates. The most obvious move to make, which is impossible for many, is to buy a high-end handset from a top-tier manufacturer. The Galaxies, Ones, and Xperias of the world tend to see the most timely upgrades, as their makers devote significant manpower to keeping existing customers satisfied. This is not to say that the major OEMs don’t drag their feet in some cases, and ignore certain handsets for no discernible reason, but the odds are more in your favor than if you go with a less reliable brand. In addition, Google’s own Nexus devices tend to receive the newest releases fairly early, as do unlocked handsets, which eliminate carriers from the equation.
Perhaps the best way to look at the state of upgrading is to view these devices for what they are: powerful, pocketable computers. Until very recently, desktop and laptop users were never guaranteed free updates to the latest major revisions of their respective platforms; if you wanted to stay cutting edge, you had to shell out for new software. The fact that mobile users can even expect a breath of fresh air into their devices at least once during their lifecycles is a pretty nice thing — and the fact that it seems to take forever to happen, at times, is an unfortunate, but unavoidable, side effect to a marketplace rich with significant hardware selection and subsidies.
Evan Blass at Google+