It's time Google starts paying for Android updates

It's time Google starts paying for Android updates

Summary: Everyone knows Google has a problem when it comes to Android updates. Some say carriers need to fix it. Others say OEMs are responsible. I think Google is the one that needs to get its act together.


While trying to catch up on my usual tech reading from last week, I stumbled on an excellent article from ExtremeTech titled "It's time to start paying for Android updates." The main argument is that Android users should pay a fee, say $10, to their carrier to get the next version of Android on their phone. The advantage of such a system is that carriers suddenly have an incentive to provide Android updates much more quickly to their customers. I think Google should be the one providing the incentive, not the consumer.

ZDNet's James Kendrick made the argument too: How to fix the Android update mess: Paid updates

We all know how dire the situation is. Android 4.0 (codenamed Ice Cream Sandwich) was released in November 2011. Four months later, and it is installed on just 1.6 percent of Android devices, according to Android Developers. Compare this to Android 2.2 (codenamed Froyo), which a whopping 25.3 percent of Android devices are still running. This fragmentation causes lots of problems, especially for app developers.

The aforementioned article discusses how feasible it is to pay for updates:

For paid system updates to work, they need to be optional. If a user doesn't want to pay $10 for newer software, they should not be berated with update notifications.

Screw that. The average Android user doesn't even know his or her phone has Android. The average Android user doesn't know he or she can update. The average Android user should not have to pay for updates. The average Android user should be nagged to update. The average Android user should be supported by… Google.

The only demographic that might pay is a typical tech geek who doesn't install custom ROMs on his Android device. Nobody else will. The only way to really get that 1.6 percent number deep into double digits, and quickly, is for Google to pay carriers and OEMs to push updates.

Google should say: "Hey AT&T! For every 100,000 smartphone users that you upgrade to Android 4.0, we'll cut you a big fat cheque" or "Hey Samsung! The sooner you can offer Android 4.0 on your five most popular phones, the sooner we'll give you Android 5.0." These are off the top of my head; I'm sure Google can think of better incentives than I can.

For now, Google seems to be perfectly happy with pushing Android onto as many devices as possible. Most Android users are on Android 2.3 (codenamed Gingerbread, now at 62.0 percent). The company's suggestions at Google I/O 2011 to push Gingerbread didn't really work. Yes, Gingerbread now finally has a majority, but most of those devices aren't even upgrades – they're just phones that shipped with that version. Something more drastic needs to be done for Android 4.0.

I doubt Google will figure out how to solve the Android updating problem this year, but if it does, chances are the solution will be announced at Google I/O 2012. In other words, the company has three more months to think of a solid plan.

See also:

Topics: Mobility, Android, Google, Telcos

Emil Protalinski

About Emil Protalinski

Emil is a freelance journalist writing for CNET and ZDNet. Over the years,
he has covered the tech industry for multiple publications, including Ars
Technica, Neowin, and TechSpot.

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  • Maybe you don't know how this works?

    If the carriers/manufacturers' were simply installing a plain-vanilla form of the latest Android onto their devices, Google could possibly roll out OS updates. However, you're missing the point of Android. It's open source.

    For instance, the Chromium browser is open source, was built by a bunch of Google engineers, and has a structure in place to guide further browser decisions. Google takes the Chromium browser and adds in their own proprietary stuff and brands it and distributes it as the Chrome browser.

    Likewise, the same is true of Android. The base Android OS is open source. This is how Amazon was able to legally strip out any Google stuff and replace it with their own equivalents (including the app store itself). Since it is open source, each carrier/manufacturer can simply download the latest version, tweak it to work on their hardware, then customize the interface as little (or as much) as they choose. The resulting version of Android on any given phone isn't truly "just Android"... it's HTC's version of Android... or Samsung's version of Android... or Amazon's version of Android. Therefore, it's up to each of those individual companies to update their own version of Android.

    The only way Google could update these third-party devices would be to ask each third-party for their tweaked source code, then decide to take ownership of that source code from that point on. That's not how open source works.

    Now, sure, Google does impose certain requirements to prevent Amazon-like tweaks. (Basically, if you tweak the device as much as Amazon has, you don't get to have the "Google experience".) However, any type of draconian control beyond this would destroy the whole spirit of what Android is.

    So, for as long as Android is open source and for as long as carriers/manufacturers are allowed to customize their builds for their individual devices, it's up to those carriers/manufacturers to support their own customized code-base. Expecting Google to support HTC's coding or Samsung's coding is ludicrous. If the only thing these third-parties were doing were changing the background picture and installing some of their own apps, it would be one thing... but they are tweaking the actual code-base, so there's no way Google could support this without wrestling control of the code. That would be too Apple-like to ever be Android-like.

    Saying that Google needs to push out updates to Android-based devices by third-parties is like saying Apple has to single-handedly update Chrome directly to users because it uses their open sourced WebKit renderer.
    • I never said Google should do the actual updating.

      I said Google should provide incentives to the carriers and OEMs managing the updates.
    • Actually...

      ...I don't think Emil was suggesting Google do anything with the code. The suggestion is for Google to find a way to drive manufacturers and carriers to get their own updates pushed out. Hopefully Google finds a way to do this soon so Android doesn't start losing more developers.
    • Ditto

      It is not simply googles fault. The manufacturers are who roll out updates. Lg, motorola, samsung etc
    • Still would fail

      Even if you take away the carrier add-ons, it would still need to be optimized and tested for the different hardware configurations that are out there.
    • Exactly.

      [i]" The resulting version of Android on any given phone isn't truly "just Android"... it's HTC's version of Android... or Samsung's version of Android... or Amazon's version of Android."[/i]

      And at what point do we stop calling them Android Phones and start calling them Sense, or TouchWiz phones? Once you start tweaking the OS code and skinning, and in the case of Amazon forking, it is no longer "pure Android". You have taken control of the OS away from Google and you should be responsible for timely updates etc....
  • Backwards

    And how exactly would you expect that to work financially?
    I mean, they are already paying for the development of the operating system. An operating system that both manufacturers and carriers profit from using. Typically OEM's pay for software, not the other way around.

    It's kind of like expecting Microsoft to hand out $100 checks to everyone who buys a Windows PC.
  • um...

  • Why bother to update?

    Average life of an Android device is probably 2 years. With all the headaches involved, why bother to upgrade anything?

    New device, new version.

    The real problem is that Android 2.2 is still be installed on NEW DEVICES while 4.0 is the latest release. That's the real problem!

    Upgrade - no reason
    how does Google Force latest version on new hardware - that's the real problem!
    • 2 years not everywhere

      Here is Canada most contracts are 3 years to get the device free.

      I bought my HTC Incredible S last summer with Android 2.2 and within a week it upgraded to 2.3. I just read last week that HTC is planning Android 4.0 for my phone, though I have no idea when it's gonna end up on it (HTC development plus Bell Canada's tweaking), might still be a few months.
      • Free?

        Most devices aren't free and that is likely why we pay $200 on average to cover the phone.
      • @Peter Perry: They're not $200, either

        We pay 200ish dollars for our phones because they are subsidized by the carriers. The phones tend to cost between $400 and $600. In Canada, they have systems in place where they'll simply subsidize it more in exchange for a longer contract.

  • Why do you think google cares what version of Android a phone

    is running? All versions of Android give google the data they want to mine for their advertising revenue.
    • Absolutely right!

      Google doesn't care about version as long as they get your raw data and eyes on their ads. Why should they spend money to keep users happy when their return would be essentially zilch?
      • huh

        Which is why google dumps 100's of millions in R&D for new and better android versions right? Google WANTS everyone on ICS and the current code source. You're outrage should be at HTC/Sammy etc. They have the code its up to them to push the updates.
  • The incentive is selling the next Andoid device or NOT...

    when the customer considers buying a new device and says "How Happy Was I With Anroid and the Manufacturer On My Last Device". Many of the Android manufacturers are going to have to answer that question to their customers. I am not sure that many Manfacturers have what I would call extremely happy customers. I own an Acer Iconia Tablet A500. Still waiting on AdHoc Wifi Support from Acer or from Android without having to root the device. If I wanted exactly what was allowed by the Manufacturer or OS maker, I could have bought an iPad.
  • You said why yourself

    As you said in the article, "The average Android user doesnt even know his or her phone has Android." The only people that care about these updates are the geeks like us that read these articles. (i.e. a very small minority of their subscribers)

    My friend is going to upgrade her phone and I told her to make sure to get one with ICS. She was like, "Huh???" She doesn't care which OS her phone has. She makes calls, surfs the internet and checks FB. As long as her phone can do that she couldn't care less if it was Android 1.0. Most of my other friends are in the same boat.

    We spend a lot of time making a big deal out of things the rest of the world couldn't care less about. ('this phone is .0000001 mm thinner than the last version! ) LOL
    • Developers

      Yes, but even average Android users care about apps. Developers of said apps can make better apps if they can target only newer Android versions. They currently can't do that.
      • Umm do you know anything?

        I am an Android dev, and yes we can. You can put which app version to be installed on what OS and/or type of phone. It's actually VERY simple. I have several versions of my apps by just making minor code tweaks for different type of phones. Example, with the Galaxy Nexus my app uses the hardware gpu tweaks, but that wont work on a 1.6 Android device. So if they have 1.6-2.1 they get a toned down version of my app. It takes all of an hour of coding. Do some research before you claim to represent any developer my friend.
  • They do not have problems...

    2.3.3 was current before ICS was released as Honeycomb was a tablet OS only. The added layer may slow down the update process by several months but it is not a problem, believe me.