June 25, 2012 | by Andrew Kameka
The Android Update Alliance was destined to disappoint, and we all should have seen it from the start. How could we really believe that all of the major players in Android would stick to a non-binding agreement to keep their phones updated for up to 18 months after release. Nothing in these companies’ track records showed any signs that they could or would do it, but we all wanted to believe, so we did. What fools we were.
Android users were too excited following the Android Update Alliance’s announcement to truly grasp how hollow the initiative might prove. Google was clear that the alliance was merely a way to encourage updates; it wasn’t a mandate. Manufacturers, carriers, and Google were to work together to deliver updates when the technology allowed for a smooth experience, which was easier said than done. Throw in costs of developing new software, issues with legacy devices, and hastily released hardware being plagued by problems or selling poorly, there was little incentive to provide long-term updates for the devices people thought the Alliance had in mind.
But one year later, the thought of Android devices being updated promptly after release seems more ludicrous than ever. We can expect phones to be “supported” with critical security and stability updates, but what really matters to the plugged-in Android user is firmware upgrades. For those users who elected not to root their phone, the Update Alliance has had little, if any, impact on their phone’s OS level. (Click here to see a chart of notable U.S. phones and their update status.)
This isn’t meant to be yet another “Android’s fragmentation problem will be its death!” post. The idea that fragmentation – loosely defined by most who use the term as the discrepancy in firmware versions powering Android devices – will doom Android has been proven false for more than two years now. The reality is that most devices running Android 2.2 or higher are capable of running the most popular and important apps in Google Play. Hardware fragmentation remains an annoyance, but it is not the make or break issue that naysayers constantly harp on. The fact that people keep buying Android phones shows that the only people who care about fragmentation are developers, bloggers, and the very vocal enthusiast community.
However, the lack of updates is an important issue to enthusiasts, and it is a problem. Many of the things that people complain about – bugs, battery life, lag, and the elusive Feature X not being available to their device – are improved in later firmware versions. Knowing that these grievances with gadgets we use daily could be addressed through a software update only amplifies the frustration and breeds resentment for Android as a whole. The whole point of the Update Alliance was that these people would have less reason to be upset and impatient.
I might concede to someone defending the alliance that perhaps these companies expressing a willingness to update some devices is cause for a small amount of thanks. After all, we’ve seen several phones languish forever on the same firmware as their debut, and companies abandon products without shame. But that would be letting the alliance members off far too easy. It’s not merely enough to say, “We’ll push out an update,” and then do nothing for half a year. It’s not good enough to have a phone promoted as groundbreaking when it is rendered obsolete on the eve of a new Android version being announced. It’s not good enough when two phones can be released within days of each other but be updated weeks apart.
The Android Update Alliance wasn’t just pledge to update phones; it was a pledge to update in a reasonable timeframe. We know that Android’s pace has been faster than any other mobile operating system in recent memory, and we know a great deal of work goes into the process; however, that just means companies need to pick up the pace and make their process more efficient.
So what’s the solution? Your guess is as good as mine. The answer for millions of people is to simply root their device and install custom ROM’s, but an increase in locked bootloaders prevents that as an option all the time. Just buy a Nexus! Sure, but ask Sprint and Verizon customers if they got prompt updates from their carrier (hint: no).
The most obvious solution would be for the Update Alliance to do what it set out to do. If only things were that simple.