MTE Explains: Why Is Updating an Android Such a Mess?

Windows users can update their operating system to the latest version as long as they can afford the upgrade and their hardware can support it. Mac OS X users are accustomed to the same process. Linux users can basically update indefinitely for free. iOS users may not expect as long of a shelf life from their devices, but they can at least expect support through the next couple of versions. Android users, however, face a drastically different situation. Many Android devices, especially the budget models, never see a single update. The majority only get one major update. Why is updating an Android such a mess?

The Android operating system is not the first open source mobile operating system, but it has found the most mainstream success. Google releases the Android source code under an Apache license, allowing the software to be freely manipulated by phone manufacturers, wireless carriers, and anyone else who can make use of it. Android has appeared in everything from refrigerators to watches.

Sony Smartwatch

This is both a blessing and a curse. Android’s OS has been able to spread so quickly because it is open source, providing manufacturers with an operating system they can use without having to pay licensing fees. At the same time, freedom to manipulate means the freedom to lock things down. Manufacturers can both add and restrict features as they wish. The more changes they make to the code, the more work they have to do to implement any updates that Google releases. Each device is also physically different from one another, further complicating matters. Most of the time, manufacturers do not feel compelled to expend the resources necessary to support any particular device for long.

Verizon Samsung Galaxy

Wireless carriers simply have different priorities than their consumers. While users would prefer to use their new smartphones for as long as possible, carriers want to entice them back into the store. In the United States, where the majority of smartphones are sold with two-year contracts, wireless carriers are compelled to draw people to renew their contracts however possible. If the market hasn’t changed quickly enough for a particular phone to look or feel glaringly outdated, then outdated software is their best bet for getting a consumer to commit to a new contract. Few people like contracts, but once they find updating an Android isn’t possible, they’ll resign to getting another contract. A carrier likes the thought of a new operating system update drawing consumers to buy their new flagship phones. Why give that up for free?

With the vast majority of Android devices, Google does not control the hardware. While it may bother Google when people are frustrated with their Android experience, Samsung or HTC only care about people’s experience with their phones in particular. Google benefits from someone using Android, regardless of what phone they have, but manufacturers could care less if someone uses Android on someone else’s device. They want people to love their phones enough to be loyal, but not so much that they won’t feel compelled to buy the next release. The Nexus devices are the only ones that Google exercises a large degree of control over, even though the company still hasn’t supported any of its devices for as long as Apple has.

Android Nexus Updates

While updating an Android tends to be a hassle, the majority of software is still compatible with most Android phones out there. This is because Google is able to update Google Play and several key background services. Going forward, Google is shifting more features to these separate services that previously would have been saved for updates to the operating system itself. In this way, Android users can still enjoy the latest features without having to make a full upgrade. It doesn’t solve the problem, but unless Google starts attaching more strings when it shares the Android source code with manufacturers, it’s the best we can expect for now.