The Orange View (on hiatus) Because Apple is great but it isn't perfect


The overblown Android update issue

Michael Degusta has done a huge amount of work to create a sharp chart showing the "sad history" of operating system updates on Android phones released from 2008 to mid-2010 in the United States. It's a legitimate exercise and, of course, there's the requisite re-posting and crowing from Apple oriented bloggers.

But the chart only goes so far and, despite how cool it all appears, it doesn't tell you anything you didn't already know or that isn't already getting better.

1. It's mostly old phones with a well-publicized problem

I went over this pretty recently after Marco Arment and Dan Benjamin went on a completely inaccurate rant about updates and security. Android's lack of updates has been a big deal for years and Android and Me did a similar chart in August that showed the lack of updates for older phones. But Google is well aware of the problem. AT&T went on an upgrade wave to get 11 2011 models onto Android 2.3, the current version. And the situation for the upcoming "Ice Cream Sandwich" updates appears to be shaping up better with commitments from Motorola and Sony Ericsson on the table so far.

2. 84% of Android phone owners right now are running the current version or one behind

Google publishes a table of the OS version breakdown of Android phone users every month and 84% are on either 2.2 or 2.3. Developers can target their apps at 2.2 compatibility and know that the vast majority of Android phones will be potential customers. We don't actually have this kind of data for Apple iPhones, although Degusta seems to assume that everyone is maximally updated. That's a weak assumption when half of all iPhones have never been synched once after initial activation. Android phones get updates over-the-air automatically so they don't have that issue.

3. Android relies less on OS updates to improve or fix your phone

Unlike Apple's iOS, Google can improve or fix many parts of its Android ecosystem with simple app updates. The built-in mail, market and music player apps have been updated directly by Google recently without requiring a wholesale OS update. Google has also pushed out security updates and removed malware on its own without delay from carriers and manufacturers.

4. The red herring of developer support

Degusta goes on and on about the impact on developers who can't be sure they won't have to support an old, old version of Android. This is nonsense for two reasons.

There will be a huge audience for new apps that ignore older versions because the vast majority of Android phones run recent versions. When you have 43% market share, the fact that a few phones run outdated versions of the OS doesn't lessen the juicy market available for modern apps.

And, just as important, the Android market doesn't let phones install incompatible apps, so there's no support problem for developers. That is, if you put out an app right now that is compatible with "Froyo" and above, you'd hit over 80% of phone owners and the other 20% wouldn't be able to install it.

So, bottom-line, updates are an area where Android lags Apple iOS, at least for phone owners paying attention and wanting upgrades. But it's not as bad as Degusta's chart and commentary makes it seem if you're a developer or you're in the market for a phone today.

Posted by Aaron Pressman

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  1. I agree with you on all counts, but I think this negative publicity right now will do Android good in the long term. Google announced the Android Update Alliance at I/O this year, without giving any specifics or showing any plans, and they didn’t say anything about it at the Android 4.0 event either. I’m starting to think the manufacturers are starting to backtrack from that “18 months update plan for all Android phones” (made by the 5 big manufacturers).

    So that infographic will be a good reminder to them that they need to become more serious about this. I’m hoping Android 4.0 will make it easier for them to upgrade the devices, because I’ve noticed Honeycomb tablets get updated pretty quickly, although that may be just because it’s stock version.

  2. Name any other device that you initially spend about $200 on, and then in the course of the next two years spend about $50 per month on for a total of $1400, and in which you can expect zero support from the manufacturer (that’s HTC / Motorola / … or from the provider Verizon / AT&T / …)

    Much as I like Android, Degusta is right on the money with his criticisms.

    As consumers we expect more support from car manufacturers, software suppliers, home appliance manufacturers, cable providers, EVERYONE.

  3. Something to point out (which I missed the first time I saw this) is that it is missing quite a few newer handsets – such as the Samsung Galaxy range.

    At a guess, probably deliberately left out because it would weaken the argument. Not to mention the sort of thing that wouldn’t help getting it mentioned on Gruber’s or Marco’s blog.

  4. I don’t think it’s an honest effort, it’s just an infographic troll.

    Just one example, the color-coding is dependant on the device having the “most recent version”, yet iOS gets updated roughly yearly, and Android updated every 6 months on average.

    Google and Apple have different approaches to things, you can compare them without some understanding of both e.g. Apple has a developer program where programmers run the next version of iOS for months before release. Google on the other hand has “developer phones” which cost more than other phones and aren’t as easy to buy but let you run the next version of the OS first. Why choose to start the clock ticking from Apple’s launch to consumers, but not Google’s launch to consumers?

    I’m not sure someone could put that much effort into the chart and not realise that they were slanting the data.