Google needs to get serious about solving the Android upgrade mess

Google needs to get serious about solving the Android upgrade mess

Summary: While reports suggested that 60 percent of iPhone owners had upgraded to iOS 6 within days of its release, Google is still struggling to get 4.1 'Jelly Bean' over the 2 percent mark after almost three months. Google needs to work harder.

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Google may be seeing some 1.3 million new Android device activations every day, but this doesn't help those who are hoping to see their existing device get upgraded to the latest version of the mobile operating system.

And the problem is bad. Very bad.

While Google is struggling to get 2 percent of Android users up to Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" almost three months after its release, a report by Chitika Insights claims that 60 percent of iPhones are running Apple's latest mobile software, iOS 6. This means that developers are having to support an ever-increasing array of aging versions, while at the same time preventing them from making full use of new features. For consumers, it means that they are denied new features and not getting security updates that help keep their handsets and tablets safe from hackers and malware. 

By far the most popular version of Android continues to be the now aged Android 2.3 "Gingerbread". This is Google's mobile version of Windows XP, an old version of a platform that both hardware makers and consumers are clinging onto for dear life. It was the platform that was around when Android went mainstream, and as such there are a lot of devices out there running it. You can still find handsets for sale that still use "Gingerbread," even though the platform hasn't seen an update since September 2011.

Google's take on updates has wavered over the months. The official message started out as saying that upgrades didn't matter, then changed to asking handset makers to guarantee upgrades, to now helping -- somewhat unenthusiastically -- handset makers get updates out to users quicker.

But despite Google throwing its weight behind the problem, you can't assume that any Android handset you buy today will ever see an upgrade.

Like I said, it's very bad.

Problem is, it's a tough problem to solve because there are so many cooks with their hands in the Android broth.

While Google is responsible for the core Android operating system, the only handset that runs this unadulterated version of Android is Google's own Nexus line. Other handset makers customize -- some would say taint -- Android with customizations, hardware specific tweaks, third-party software, crapware, and so on.

Then carriers add their own twist to the operating system in the form of branding and more third-party software.

And all this has to happen before users get their hands on the update. Which is why it doesn't happen often. Google is primarily interested in new handset activation and increased market share above all else, not in creating a unified ecosystem. The handset makers have sold you a phone and hope to never hear from you again until it's time to buy again. And at the end of the food chain, the carriers already have you hooked up to a multi-year contract, and as such don't seem to care about what operating system your smartphone or tablet runs.

Aftermarket firmware projects such as CyanogenMod work to bypass this lengthy and laborious chain and deliver updates for hardware direct, but this is not for the faint of heart.

I see a couple of potential solutions to this massive problem. First, is to approach it the way that Apple has decided to approach the problem or updates, and cut the carriers out of the equation and send the new updates directly to the handsets. This would mean that handset makers could work with Google to get the updates to users quicker. It eliminates any heel-dragging from the carriers, but it still needs the handset makers to be cooperative.

Another option would be for Google to partner closely with certain handset makers and carriers, and work with them to bring the updates to handsets. This would require a high level of collaboration -- possibly more than even the likes of Google could muster -- but it would mean that updates would get out to the widest possible user base. This is sort of the approach that Microsoft has taken with Windows Phone, although its user base is tiny compared to that of iOS or Android, and so much easier to manage.

By working closely with some handset makers -- and not just Motorola, which is now a unit of Google -- this would pressure the others to make updates a higher priority. 

If Google is serious about shifting Android users up to the latest release as quickly as possible -- rather than just selling users a new smartphone or tablet -- then it needs to do all it can to solve this fragmentation problem. It won't be easy, it may cost Google a pile of dollars, and the solution might never be perfect, but it would show that Google was serious about solving this problem.

Image source: Google Developer Dashboard, Chitika Insights.

Topics: Android, Google, Mobile OS, Smartphones, Tablets

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69 comments
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  • Google should take Apple's approach on this one.

    If Apple can do it, Google can create an OS that updates directly. At the VERY least the Nexus range should upgrade in this way. Why on earth don't these at least update this way?

    p.s - Most users don't care however. Tell me the last time you heard an average user moan their Android phone was on an old version? Most don't know/don't care.
    bradavon
    • What are you talking about

      they do upgrade in that way - if you have a stock google device. My galaxy nexus updated, and my nexus 7 upgraded. Beyond that its up to the carrier, or manufacturer. My transformer updated as well, pushed out by Asus.
      deathjazz68
    • If Apple can...

      Things never work this way. Apple is Apple - Google is Google. They do things differently, including updates and the whole concept with mobile devices.

      With Apple, you, who buys the device is the customer. With Google, the advertiser is the customer and you who buys the device is the... patient, or subject if you will.

      c'est la vie
      danbi
      • Actuall you got something wrong

        With Google, the advertiser are the customers and the people who buys the devices are the PRODUCT they sell the advertiser.
        wackoae
        • Apple the same

          you could apply the same to Apple's model.
          The customers are the media providers and app developers and licensed accessory vendors and even the iad customers. You could count the commissions from carriers as well, as I know that the biggest carriers in my country give apple a kickback for data usage through dedicated APN for apple devices.
          The product is the users except they pay Apple a premium for that privilege.
          warboat
          • If your delusional you might be able to apply the same to Apple

            Apple makes the vast majority of their money selling the hardware. The percentage they get from Apps pretty much goes to running the App store and accessory vendors pay a minimal amounts. Google doesn't make money selling Android at all, they make money off the advertising derived from Android so in other words as stated before advertisers are the customer and Android users are the product.
            non-biased
    • At a minimum Nexus devices should be getting upgrades for a couple of years

      As far as users complaining, I have heard it a few times. I do agree though that the vast majority don't know any better so they don't care. Of course this blows away the old talking point that most people care about the OS being open or not because if they cared about that they would care about updates.
      non-biased
  • How many different phones are there?

    What is the life expectancy of a typical cell phone, would it be he length of the contract? How much time toes it take to create the update for the product?

    How many types of iphones are there? How many types of droids are there?

    How many types of ipads vs android tablets?

    Also, can every phone support the latest version of the operating system, and not loose reliability or functionality?

    Even if we take out the carrier factor, there are still a lot of different components in android based systems.

    The benefit you have, is that you can find a price point that meets your budget and needs, rather than having to go with the one model available.
    ChuckBeaurepair
    • None of that changes anything

      I think it is reasonable to put a two year life expectancy on a smartphone so devices should get updates for this period of time. You can't make excuses for the lack of updates on the number of different devices out there. Is that a factor, of course it is but that was Google and the OEMs doing so if they want to support their customers they have to step up. They knew full well that producing countless numbers of devices would cause more headaches when it came to updates but they did it anyway so they can't use that as a legitimate excuse. Each OEM would be responsible for their updates only so it's not like one company has to update all the devices. Now when it comes to currently selling devices with old versions of the OS, there is absolutely no excuse for that.
      non-biased
  • So Old .... So Wrong

    Why do these writers keep harping iOS vs. android OS upgrades?

    They are not the same strategy.
    The number of devices, variations and OEMs ....

    Google is well on its way to get the current onto 4.x.
    There are exceptions.

    Next.
    rhonin
    • RE: There are exceptions.

      In the case of exceptions, whether it's Android 2.3, 3.x or 4.1, the OHA manufacturers and carriers need to push security updates to their users in a timely manner.

      It's one thing for a device not to get an Android upgrade, while it's quite another if the OHA manufacturers and carriers leave their customers hanging with unpatched Android vulnerabilities, including those in default apps.
      Rabid Howler Monkey
    • When the exceptions outnumber the rule

      The rule becomes the exception.
      ssaha
    • Well on their way?

      You are kidding right? With what only 25.5% of devices after a year and you think that's well on their way. Man, thanks for the afternoon laugh, it was pretty good.
      non-biased
  • Google can put out the OS

    It's up to the individual carriers to not be lazy and actually put it out for their customers. If Google controls them, won't somebody shriek "commie fascist" or something?

    With Google purchasing Motorola, Google has some control over Motorola devices, but that's all a free market would allow... buying everyone else out. Google still has no need to support the brand they bought...
    HypnoToad72
    • Google CAN'T put out the OS..Googorola...

      Actually Google & Motorola are run independently of each other & are a subsidiary. They actually can't control it to much because of cross-competition issues with vendors like Samsung who sell more devices this year than Motorola has in the last decade. If Google planned on using Motorola to take control of updates & to create the flagship of all Android devices, then you would have seen Moto selected for a Nexus Tablet, or at the very least a Nexus phone instead of awarding it to LG, who has the absolute worst record when it comes to firmware upgrades.

      Maybe sometime in the future, but I would bet on it. The last thing Google wants to do is upset the egg cart & have HTC & Samsung & every other OEM out there fork their own version of Android. They need the other OEM's to be able to build on the Play Store like they have. The Moto deal was 99.9% about acquiring patents to protect Google & the other OHA members from ever growing threat of patent squatters & litigation. To put it in perspective, both Google & Android, for the first time in the history of mobile devices has spent more on patents & patent related litigation than they have on research & development. Google really isn't a manufacturer & in my opinion the 0.1% that wasn't about the patents was about having a lab to play with, to test out new ideas & possibly showcase other applications for the Android OS as well as to test out new ideas for the AOSP Android firmware.
      George Leon
    • The issue is what they should have done, not what they should do now

      Google should have negotiated strict terms with the OEMs and carriers when it comes to the updates from day one and this would not have been an issue. Does Google really care? Who knows if they do, they are going to make revenue either way so it doesn't really hurt them.
      non-biased
  • Nexus

    I purchased a Verizon Nexus in November of last year. Verizon just released the JB update last week or the week before. So much for a 'stock' OS.
    Uncle_walt
  • A perfect example of the ZDNet two-step

    You admit Google isn't responsible for anything but the core, that it's up to the hardware makers to push out the upgrades, but then you blame Google anyway. A perfect 10 from the Romanian judge.
    Vesicant
    • You can certainly put blame on Google

      If they have negotiated strict terms in regard to upgrades from day one this wouldn't be an issue. But why would they, all they cared about was getting as many devices on the market as possible.
      non-biased
  • Wait

    Are you claiming that older Android versions are not getting any security updates anymore ? That would be a far greater shame as not being upgraded to the latest and greatest, surely that can't be true.
    sjaak327