Why Android updates are a mess: it's the business model

Why Android updates are a mess: it's the business model

Summary: Reading complaints about missing and late Android updates, I got a weird case of deja vu. Sure enough, this problem is the same as it was last year. The Android business model practically guarantees that updates will be a mess. Here's why.


Another Android release, another round of update uncertainty and disappointment.

My ZDNet colleague James Kendrick addressed the latest flap the other day with a provocatively titled post, Android 4.0 updates: It is all about the money. The short version of James's argument is that handset makers would rather sell you a new phone than support an old one, and so they deliberately refuse to update old ones.

I remember engaging in this same argument about Windows Phones a year ago, when some analysts argued that carriers would deliberately block updates to sell new devices. When I read my analysis from back then, I got a weird sense of déjà vu. In fact, what I wrote back in November 2010 applies equally well to the Android community today:

One of the biggest criticisms of Windows Mobile and Android devices is that device manufacturers get control over who gets updated versions of the OS. That leads to awkward situations where someone pays big bucks (and signs a long-term contract) for a high-end device that can’t compete with rivals only a few months later, because the device maker is dragging its feet on releasing the OS upgrade.

Sound familiar? Android owners were screaming back then about long delays in getting upgrades from version 2.1, which was released in January 2010 and still wasn't available on many devices 10 months later.

Then, as now, the delay was not about trying to force users to buy new handsets. Instead, it was about the business model that forces the ecosystem to make economic and engineering decisions about whether and when to update.

The Android community is traveling along a path that the old Windows Mobile platform followed a few years ago. It was a disaster then, and Microsoft wisely abandoned that entire business model when it developed Windows Phone 7. Alas, Google doesn't have that option, which means that Android users are going to continue to face a mess when it comes to updates.

Ironically, my year-old analysis applies almost perfectly to Android. Here it is again, only slightly reformulated. And it explains the Android mess better than any of the explanations I've seen so far.

With a few exceptions, handset makers like Samsung, HTC, and Motorola do not sell directly to consumers. They sell to mobile carriers, who in turn sell products directly to consumers.

Mobile carriers are not evil or stupid. They are capitalists. That often produces behavior that appears to be evil and/or stupid. Depressingly often, in fact. But there’s usually a business reason for that behavior. And those who are arguing the paranoid case are ignoring those business models.

The problem with the (now-defunct) Windows Mobile platform, as I noted last year, is that every phone was very different, and thus the decision to provide an update involved potentially significant engineering costs. Android owners are finally becoming aware that the Android platform follows the exact same model. Hardware specs are all over the map, and thus there is a complicated chain of engineering that is unique for every handset:

  • The operating system vendor (Google) issues a new version of Android (Ice Cream Sandwich, 4.0, let's say).
  • They make that code available to handset manufacturers like HTC, Motorola, and Samsung, who modify the code as needed to match the capabilities of each specific device. The handset makers also need to test the new code with each device configuration to ensure that it doesn't introduce new bugs (regression testing).
  • Then they hand the code over to the carrier (AT&T, T-Mobile, Orange, Vodafone, and so on) who might or might not add their own bits to it (branding, crapware, etc.) and test it on their network.
  • Finally, if the stars align perfectly, it gets delivered to you, the device owner, either by the device maker or by the carrier.

This is not just a theoretical analysis. Motorola was forced to release a long, detailed blog post just a few weeks ago, explaining why some of its customers would have to wait a long time for ICS upgrades and others wouldn't get them at all. Their explanation matches the situation as I described it a year ago almost to the letter.

Page 2: The long, slow Android update cycle -->

<-- Previous page

Now that Google has released the ICS source code, Motorola has to "merge and adapt the new release for different device hardware architecture(s) and carrier customizations. ... This is also the time when we begin integrating all of the Motorola-specific software enhancements into the source code. [W]e want to make sure we continue delivering differentiated experiences for our consumers with these software upgrades."

This process, including the extensive testing, can take a few months. They then have to submit the upgrade to the carriers for certification:

This is the point in the process where the carrier’s lab qualifies and tests the upgrade. Each carrier has different requirements for phases 2 and 3. There may be a two-month preparation cycle to enter a carrier lab cycle of one to three months.

Of course, that assumes that the hardware is capable of supporting the new OS release. Samsung determined that its award-winning Galaxy S won't be able to accommodate ICS, even though the platform is less than two years old.

Apple controls its iPhone platform, and Microsoft has similar control over the new Windows Phone business model, in which every phone has a consistent design and a uniform feature set that is is aligned to the OS roadmap. Contrast that with the Android business model, where a carrier like Samsung can release a flagship device that is incapable of running an OS upgrade released only a few months later.

Back to the conspiracy theory. James argues it as well as I've seen:

Companies like the goodwill they get from existing customers when they support products for a while, but in the end it doesn’t get them much. Fact is, if OEMs keep updating older devices with new versions of Android it is more likely those customers won’t buy another gadget any time soon. That’s the churn that OEMs depend on to keep sales hopping.

The reality is far more nuanced, and the business reason has nothing to do with trying to force customers to upgrade. As I wrote a year ago:

“Carriers can block an update,” say the skeptics. To which I respond: BUT THAT’S NOT THE ISSUE. I have never known a carrier to block an update to a device. Instead, they and their handset maker partner make a business decision not to invest engineering resources in modifying a new version of the mobile OS for a specific device and carrier.

In the U.S. market, carriers don’t want to sell you a new phone. They want you to pay them a monthly bill, preferably a big one with a full data plan and a bunch of add-on services. New phones cost them money, in the form of subsidies they pay the handset maker in exchange for getting you to agree to a two-year contract to pay that big monthly bill. You pay off that subsidy over the life of your contract. When the contract is up, your carrier is perfectly happy if you keep paying the big bill.

They will offer you a new subsidized price for the latest greatest handset as a way to coerce you into signing a new two-year contract and not switching carriers. In the mobile industry, this metric is called the “churn rate,” and carriers want to keep it as low as possible. In general, when your contract expires after two years, there is likely to be a much better phone available for you. The carrot of a discount on that shiny new device is what carriers use to lure you into either staying or switching. Making your old phone unpleasant to use does not inspire loyalty; it sends you to another carrier.

Subsidies work differently in some non-U.S. markets, but in general the business model is still the same, and the goal is for a carrier to keep you paying your bill each month.

The problem with Android is all that freedom, which allows hardware makers to take the OS and do whatever they want with it. It is inevitable that that freedom will produce a plethora of devices. Some of them will be incapable of running a new Android update. In other cases that upgrade will require significant engineering investments—time and money—on the part of the handset maker and the carrier. They might decide to spend the money and deliver the update, six months later. Or they might decide that the investment isn't worth it.

In fact, James recognized this reality in a post he wrote at the beginning of 2011:

The Flawed Android Update Process; Too Many Cooks

The Android world is getting used to seeing new accounts every day of users unhappy with the lack of an OS update for a particular handset. Google keeps madly churning out updates with tasty version names, which starts the clock running to see when (or if) a given phone will get the update. That starts the rumor mill cranking with theories why the OEM is refusing to release the update. It’s a cycle that is guaranteed to continue, based on the flawed update process that Google has failed to address.

In May of this year, Google boasted about "a new consortium of Android partners who will be collaborating on setting standards for deploying Android updates." As the ICS fiasco illustrates, that consortium has been given an impossible task.

Over the past year, Microsoft has set an impressive standard for delivering device updates. After some initial glitches in early 2011, the company quickly got its act together, and the "Mango" update—a major upgrade—was delivered to all Windows phones over a span of a little over two months. Not a single handset maker or carrier blocked this update. They didn't want or need to. What I wrote a year ago still applies:

The cold, hard reality is that Microsoft is trying to carve out a middle space between Android and iPhone, although in my opinion it’s much, much closer to the iPhone model. Absolutely standard device specs eliminate the problem that Windows Mobile and Android have with device-specific delays. Update servers run by the OS mean a consistent experience for users (as proven by the Apple experience) and they also eliminate a significant headache for device makers and carriers. In that scenario, everyone wins.

So far, Microsoft's approach hasn't paid off in market share, and Android's woes have done nothing to slow its momentum. Will all that change in 2012 as handset makers get tired of lawsuits and customers get tired of update uncertainty? We'll see.

Related posts:


Topics: Mobility, Android, Google, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Windows

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  • Sub-optimal, but ...

    While I agree the situation could be improved for the users (first and foremost, by the OEMs and carriers keeping their hands off the SW and stop skinning it!) - for the users who really want it, the root & rom community is always available :).

    I _hope_ to have ICS for my Bionic before the end of the year, and maybe for my XOOM before end of January (that has a much less involved dev community, IMHO) ... unofficially, the official versions will probably be another 3-6 months?

    • Sure it is

      @trejrco_z ... because downloading crap from the web (with generically hacked drivers), posted on questionable forums and created by anonymous hackers, then installing it on your device is a very secure process.

      This is why Android is infected with trojans .... the users are some of the dumbest and completely clueless people in the world.
      • Your Insult Has Come Back On You

        @wackoae---'This is why Android is infected with trojans...'
        You've unthinkingly bought hook, line and sinker that we android users are just rife with malware. In the real world, as dissenting journalists agree, it's just not the reality at all, in the vast majority.
        And by insultingly extrapolating on your faulty premise, you've actually just joined 'some of the dumbest and completely clueless people in the world.'.
      • RE: Why Android updates are a mess: it's the business model

        +1 for PreachJohn. Only Apple diehards actually believe that all Android phones are infected. They take what the Apple biased media says as the truth the rehash the same crap out on the comments, unknowing that they themselves are the completely clueless ones.
      • RE: Why Android updates are a mess: it's the business model


        If you use Android-based banking apps, you are braver than I.
      • RE: Why Android updates are a mess: it's the business model

        @wackoae +1 for wackoae and -1 for the Android users in denial.
      • Secret sauce n

        OK, saying that "Android is infected with Trojans" was overkill, but his main point stands: putting software that you downloaded from a 'warez' site on your device, and necessarily giving it root access, is Asking For It.
        Robert Hahn
      • RE: Why Android updates are a mess: it's the business model

        @wackoae The "dumb" or "clueless" person is you if you think that open source ROMs from cyanogenmod or XDA are "hacked", "questionable" or that open source developers are shadowy "anonymous" people. Troll.
      • RE: Why Android updates are a mess: it's the business model

        ... aside from the last comment, wackoae has a valid point. Malware has shown up in Android based stores, and even iOS users who have used jailbroken or in-other-words "Rooted" devices were much more likely to have outdated bits which exposed users information. This is cause for great concern especially to Security Conscious IT people who have support the devices in the enterprise.

        Android is such as rat trap that I recommend to my CIO that we not support Android. Until Google grabs a hold of the reigns on Android and forces more ridged standards than the willy nilly security no IT pro can confidently have an Android Device playing on the network with sensitive data such as e-mail. It is a big security risk.

        I wouldn't be surprised to soon start hearing horror stories of lost data due to outdated Android handsets that were only a few months old.
      • RE: Why Android updates are a mess: it's the business model

        @wackoae <br>Well, CyanogenMod is pretty much the standard for Android firmware (regardless of where it came from), and it is built from the Google source tree. It isn't anonymous hackers, so lay off the Kool-Aid. :) Hell, Samsung hired the founder of CyanogenMod and even gives them devices to test with. Pretty reputable bunch really. You also don't understand how a rooted phone works. If any application wants root, there is a big ol warning prompt telling you that "Application X wants root access, allow? " Stuff can't just run as root without you having to allow it. Basically it works just like Ubuntu and Win7 for administrative prompts.<br><br>For any of the aftermarket Android ROM's, all the source code is out there to look at, so it's kinda hard to pull a fast one. XDA is also a pretty tight community, so a bad apple would get kicked out kinda quick. On the other hand, the iPhone still has security issues lurking in the middle of it which is what allows jailbreak, and Apple can't do anything to secure them until at least iPhone5. Last company I worked at, wouldn't allow iPhones to sync due to inherent/unfixable hardware security issues, but Blackberry and Android devices (rooted or not) weren't impacted. In fact one corp app required root access, so that wasn't a problem. :)
    • RE: Why Android updates are a mess: it's the business model

      The mobile contract model you describe is identical in The UK.

      Google could do two things to make it a lot better:

      1. Force a minimum hardware specification (no more 3.2"-2.5" screens for starters), just like Microsoft have done.

      2. Don't release Android until the OEMs are ready. It's entirely possible for Google to secretly give OEMs the latest Android and then wait until everyone is ready to let the public know. Imagine if the Galaxy S2 had ICS in weeks of Google releasing it to the public. Which incidentally since Google don't do that, they just make a big press event for an operating system most won't be able to actually use for months.
      • RE: Why Android updates are a mess: it's the business model

        @bradavon: As you point out, the consortium who all agreed to an 18 month upgrade period, isn't worth the paper it's written on. None of them are sticking to it.

        Personally I can live with the fact a phone released in 2010 isn't getting an update (Desire, Galaxy S) but when 2011 phones are left out (Desire 2, Incredible S/Incredible 2) then that really stinks.
      • RE: Why Android updates are a mess: it's the business model

        @bradavon I completely concurr. I started out with an iPhone, and iPad. Then bought an Android phone, and Honeycomb tablet. The upgrades on my SonyEricsson, and Acer Iconia have been completely painful. Sony at first said NO to my not even month old device for a Gingerbread upgrade (then they decided to anyways). Acer has been a complete pain in the arse. Their 3.1 distribution went over a period of 9 months and it was completely painful. I am not even going to think about 3.2 or ICS.

        As a result I went back and bought an iPad2, and MacBook Air. I upgraded my desktops to Linux, and said good riddance to Android! Android is POS! No and's, if's or but's!

        For example, I ripped my DVD's to mp4. If I copy these files to my honeycomb tablet the movie plays in 5X speed. I google and find out that the movie players on Android are garbage (can't play a simple movie). The only good one is DicePlayer and they have their Google Payment Account suspended. Who knows why, but they do. The end result is that I have a trail version of a piece of software that can play a movie that VLC has zero problems with.

        Sorry I will repeat again Android is POS! Wake up Google fix problems before released yet another cute name for Android...
      • RE: Why Android updates are a mess: it's the business model

        @serpentmage [i] Acer has been a complete pain in the arse. Their 3.1 distribution went over a period of 9 months and it was completely painful. I am not even going to think about 3.2 or ICS.[/i]

        Odd... My A500 went to 3.1, and subsequently to 3.2 without a hitch. Looking forward to ICS in January.
    • Android is the PC of mobile devices

      @trejrco_z <br><br>Android is the PC of mobile devices, easily infected with viruses and malware. The only viable system for app distribution is what Apple created, the App Store.<br><br>Yes, you lose some of the options but you gain by better security and the knowledge that the app was vetted before admitted to the app store.<br>Would you put "gasoline" into your car that you bought from some guy ? OR would you rather buy gasoline at a gas station...
  • RE: Why Android updates are a mess: it's the business model

    Any business model that allows for hundreds of manufacturers that cater to the desires of a variety of user desires is going to be somewhat more chaotic than a system designed around a single manufacturer with subsequent limited choices.
    • RE: Why Android updates are a mess: it's the business model

      @rrubin5 wrote:
      "hundreds of manufacturers

      One should restrict themselves to those members of the open handset alliance that manufacture handsets:


      There are, currently, 22 handset mfrs in the OHA. Companies outside of the OHA, such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, are really on their own.

      This a *very* different business model than used by Microsoft's OEMs for the Windows desktop. As long as an OS edition/version is supported by Microsoft, updates are readily available for desktop PC users independent of the OEM. This also applies to local mom and pop shops (system builders) that build custom Windows-based PCs for their customers. And for customers that purchase a retail copy of Windows and install it on their own PC that they either build themselves or purchased.

      The ability to patch security vulnerabilities, whether by an update or upgrade, is fundamental to computer security.
      Rabid Howler Monkey
      • And yet Amazon is proving to be able to push updates much faster than OHA.

        @Rabid Howler Monkey

        Go figure:-)

        The smartest thing Amazon did was make an Androidish tablet and divorce itself from the mess that is Android updates. Because of this rapid respons that Amazon can offer, I expect Android tablets to be DOA from this point on. Amazon will walk away with the lion's share of non-iPad sales as well as getting most of the content from non-iTMS sales.
      • RE: Why Android updates are a mess: it's the business model

        @Bruizer, you are completely clueless. You talk about Android updates being a mess and then praising Amazon. Here's a clue, updates are slow getting around because of customizations layered on top of the Android OS. Amazon is one of the most heavily customized skins there is. You can count on major updates......(keep waiting)
      • @MicroNix: If I am clueless, than why is Amazon already getting updates out

        @Rabid Howler Monkey <br><br>Simple answer, I am not clueless.<br><br>Android's update problems have everything to do with Google being clueless on how to architect a system. The structure and organization (as well as the GUI API set) is straight out of the late 1980's software design mentality.<br><br>The slowness of the updates has little to do with custom skins. For proof, I offer the Nexus One. It is a 100% unskinned "pure Android" phone. It took just over 2 months to receive the Gingerbread update. 2 months. A 100%, Google controlled, unskinned, pure Android super phone. It took Google 2 months to port their own OS to their own "reference" hardware.<br><br>Here is a phone that was designed by Google as a future proof "super-phone" that was released after the iPhone 3G S (that just got the 5.0.1 update BTW) being completely abandoned by Google with ICS.<br><br>As for [Amazon], it is a fork and I doubt they have any interest in Honeycomb or ICS. They have their own direction that does not coincide with Google's. In fact, they are competing with Google for mindshare; Goolge's Android OS or Amazon's Androidish OS. If Bezo really wanted to mess with Google, he could go to Oracle and "license" the Java IP.