Google on Android updates: We're still working on it

Google on Android updates: We're still working on it

Summary: The Android update system has regularly been in the news since the launch of the platform. Don't worry, Google says it is working on it. Still.

Help me Google
Image credit: James Kendrick/ZDNet

Almost every discussion about Android ends up covering the spotty update process. Android phone and tablet owners never know if or when their device will get the shiny new version of Android from Google. The reality is the update process is still firmly controlled by the carriers and the OEMs, and they don't have the end user foremost in mind. That's not likely to change any time soon, if ever, but according to an interview by Wired of Google's Sundar Pichai, the company is still trying to figure out how to make it better.

Pichai is the executive now in charge of both Chrome and Android, so he ought to know about Google's efforts in regards to the Android update process. The problem is, he isn't indicating anything that hasn't been known for years. Pichai made this statement to Wired that indicates Google hasn't figured out updates yet:

We are thinking about how to make Android handle updates better. We see ways we can do this. It’s early days. We’re talking with our partners and working our way through it. We need time to figure out the mechanics, but it’s definitely an area of focus for me and for the team.

Actually, it's not really early days. Android has been out for several years and has grown to have a big global market share. There are millions of Android device owners still waiting for help from Google to keep their phones and tablets with the latest features on the platform. 

Buyers of Android phones and tablets have the right to expect regular updates for the reasonable life of those products.

Not getting reliable updates on Android is not just about missing shiny new features, it means missing security updates that keep users safe. It means a lack of bug fixes that prevent proper operation of the gadgets. More importantly, it means a huge user base that doesn't feel like Google has its back. That's not a good situation for any company dealing directly with the buying public. 

In the interview, Pichai didn't mention the Update Alliance that Google proudly unveiled in 2011. That's because it's likely dead and buried as Google has not mentioned it in two years. You may not remember, but that's the alliance that Google forged to get carriers and OEMs in line to give proper updates to their customers. Sounds like Pichai's recent statement of Google's "talking with our partners and working our way through it" would be a lot further along if the company simply pushed to get that alliance doing something.

I have regularly implored Google to do something to fix the update situation. Buyers of Android phones and tablets have the right to expect regular updates for the reasonable life of those products. How long that might be is up for interpretation, but somewhere around 18 months sounds reasonable to me.

I've even suggested that Android device owners, enough of them to make it worthwhile, anyway, would be willing to pay a reasonable fee to get regular updates — a subscription service like those being adopted by big companies like Microsoft. Anything to get updates as soon as possible and regularly is perfectly acceptable.

Maybe it's time for Google to separate the hardware layer of Android from the core OS. I'm sure Google has the talent to do that, and fairly quickly. This would allow the company to push the core OS updates to every Android device owner, while putting the onus on OEMs and carriers to get the hardware layer updated to work with it. They'd likely have to do that rapidly as the OS update might break some operation of the hardware. The OEMs would have to respond to that quickly or face scores of customers unhappy with their broken gadget. That would certainly force them to do what's right for the customer.

Anytime there's a discussion about the broken Android update system there are those who point out that buyers should just buy Google Nexus products or be quiet. First of all, that hasn't always been true that all Nexus devices get fast updates. Plus, that's not a reasonable response, as customers spending several hundred dollars on Android products deserve to get a reasonable life out of them with all the updates given to other devices. That includes the fixes Android updates bring to the table. So Google needs to do more than just talk with partners, they need to get them in line.

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Topics: Mobility, Android, Smartphones, Tablets

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  • Update Alliance - What a joke!

    It never even got off the ground, no OEM followed through with their promise. Some are better than others but still.
  • It's looking impossible to me now

    After initially being bothered that I was "missing out" on Android updates, AT&T/Samsung finally came out with a number of updates, usually 6-12 months after Google released a version. That's when I learned that AT&T's months of "testing" was little more than figuring out how to stuff more cr@p into the phone. They surely weren't "testing" for bugs, as I encountered several show-stoppers on my Galaxy S2. The Sleep of Death in version 4.0.4 for me was like the final straw. The phone was *totally* unreliable after that "update" and it took time and effort on my part to get 4.0.3 put back on my phone. Others suffered on 4.0.4 for FOUR MONTHS before the fix was available. The "fix" ended the sleep of death, but for me it introduced frequent Bluetooth disconnects/reconnects. So now when I'm hands-free in my car, I lose a few seconds of the conversation every few minutes. Sometimes I lose the call completely.

    Is it Samsung upgrades that are so bug-riddled? Or does it need AT&T to *really* screw it up? Either way, I don't know if I really want updates any longer, because it seems the only good version of software is the one the phone originally shipped with....

    Really, if Microsoft provided a good tool to sync Win 8 Phone with Outlook (without using the cloud), I'd be taking a hard look at it for my next phone. (I cannot see myself using an iPhone. I've played with them, but I just find iOS too restrictive.)
  • Charge OEMs for not Adhering to alliance?

    What if Google starting charging OEMs for not adhering to the alliance they worked hard to get put in place? Seems to be a lot of money to be made there since pretty much none of them, except for Google on their Nexus devices of course, actually do.
  • There is one...and ONLY one reason for a lack of updates.

    The carriers can't sell as many NEW phones if people are allowed to update their old phones.

    Fewer sales equates to fewer profits. Period.
    • Carriers Don't Realize That......

      Most people won't buy a new phone every year. I would expect updates for 18 months from the release of the phone after that then I would start planning for my next purchase. But the carriers see updates as ways to keep phones alive. That is why I think a lot of carriers are also against selling phones that can be unlocked as soon as their released.
      • Most phones in Aus are bought on 2 year contracts...

        ... making updates fairly meaningless, unless you're a tweaker.

        I updated my Galaxy S gt-i9000 all the way to gingerbread (the last official update Samsung put out for the model afaik), passed my contract time, rooted and upgraded my phone to Jellybean (CyanogenMod 10.1) because there's no warranty and if I kill it, I'll get a new phone on a new plan.

        My wife, on the other hand, who has an identical phone, but is not a tweaker, is still using the original Froyo stock - as are most of the other people I know of.
  • Expected support period

    In Canada we have 3 year contracts, so I expect active support for at least 3 years.

    If the phone manufacturers kept proprietary features out of the kernel they would find it much easier to follow the OS updates developed by Google. Google could also provide more stable "hooks" in the OS to link new hardware into the OS.
  • Most Android users don't care about updates

    Otherwise, Samsung wouldn't be the top Android handset seller.

    For those that care about receiving prompt Android updates, the choice is clear: unlocked Nexus devices. Why unlocked? Because the carriers often get in the way of pushing out prompt updates.
    Rabid Howler Monkey
    • Samsung?

      Ridiculous. Name any OEM that has more updated devices than Samsung? There are two popular websites that are growing quickly that do NOTHING but track Samsung updates & leaks. Samsung has updated devices that are 2 & 3 years old. No other manufacturer I know of can say the same. Heck, they have even been releasing updates that deal solely with bug fixes & security updates.
      George Leon
      • Umm…Apple

        I hope you are only talking about Android devices because there is a manufacturer that does better at updating old devices. But even Apple could still do better.
      • I got updates on my EVO befoer I got rid of it.

        The problem is this, as Android moves around and expands, it becomes harder for older hardware to keep up. Especially if your phone is a single core Cortex A8 or Equiv. Some of the higher clocked A9's do alright but even lower clocked runs would run slow. Even without crapware.
        • and even Apple has trouble with this...

          Some of my friends have iPhone 3Gs and iOS 6 has sloooooowed them right down. Not everything is buttery smooth in Apple land (and don't forget Apple maps ;) )
          • Not always the case and not the point

            Mom's 3GS runs fine on iOS 6 - I updated it and played with it. She's not complaining even when I ask her about speed. Maybe your friends have other stuff installed that slows down their 3GS.

            1. The 3GS is 4 years old. The fact that Apple still produces updates for this hardware is amazing considering there is NO Android handset that's 4 years old, much less 2 years old that's getting updates from the manufacturer (save Google's own devices).

            2. New features aren't the important point. Security patches and bug fixes are.

            3. Every other OS manages to separate the hardware drivers from the OS so updates focus on kernels and OS features. There are millions of different CPUs/GPUs/Hardware that run Windows and MS still manages to update the software once a month. There is no excuse that Android (based on Linux) has a problem with the two dozen SOC/GPUs running out there. Linux runs on more hardware than the current versions of Windows and Android put together yet they still manage to patch their software...

            Google threw the yoke on the manufacturers (because they didn't want the risk/burden) which is like asking the fox to guard the hen house. It's not in their best interest to keep your phone updated and running smooth but to make you replace it. It's Google's responsibility to rewrite Android (if possible) so the updates happen independently of the hardware and drivers for specific hardware are handled by the manufacturer (like our PCs)....
  • Updates

    This is a big whine piece. Most people don't give a rip about updates. They get their phone how they want and don't want an update coming along and messing up things. The vast majority of people could care less.

    Also, Samsung has been pretty good about updates. On most carriers, most Galaxy phones which are capable have Jelly Bean 4.2.1 which is new enough to the latest version of Android. I mean which killer feature does 4.2.2 have that 4.2.1 doesn't? Lock screen widgets? Most OEMs have their own proprietary lock screen gimmick anyway.

    I know I'd rather buy a new phone than keep my old one and update its software lol to behonest
    • Questionable business model

      Google is aptly named. Google, as in googly-eyed, as in hey this looks great let's do it and give/sell it oops forgot this VERY IMPORTANT thing let's trash the whole works. They make damn good products. Countless people fall in love with them, but then they decide that since it's still beta and we got bigger (more profitable) fish to fry, let's just drop that. Or it plods along, essentially unsupported except for server space/bandwidth.

      I like my Android phone. I want to love it. I sorta like my iPad Mini. I want to love it, too. But they both have such idiotic shortcomings that I'm about to pitch 'em both in the Mississippi.
  • Blaming Google...

    is not the way to go here. Because Android is open source, Google has very little to do with this process. Blaming Google is like blaming Linus Torvalds when a distribution of Linux doesn't receive any updates, it's crazy. The consumer, if they truly care, should continue to buy the Nexus, straight from Google, and make the reason known to be because of updates, vendors and carriers will get it... They'll catch on with lost revenue and carriers with less new contacts and more new prepaid customers coming in with unlocked Nexus devices.
  • I feel the need to mention something.

    You mention in this article that "Buyers of Android phones and tablets have the right to expect regular updates for the reasonable life of those products." I understand what you mean, however, I do think that one can misread this as " Android users have a right to regular updates."
    Of course you can expect or demand support, but I don't know that you would have any legal right to said support. Perhaps I am wrong. I do understand that this argument is quite pointless; I simply wished to express my concern that someone may misunderstand your words.

    On another point entirely, you state that android users may "be willing to pay a reasonable fee to get regular updates." I can see the logic in that, though I do not believe that this would be an acceptable change in the android ecosystem. Freedom is a fundamental part of android and charging customers for upgrades would surely alienate them. I doubt the paid updates would be any better.

    On yet another line of thought, I thought your article was correct. As a man who has an intense love of Free and Open Source Software, Linux, Android, and even Google, I sincerely hope that this problem will be resolved. Please forgive my pointless and irritating comments.
    • S/phone updates do stand out

      As different to every other market. No one expects Honda to update the engine maps. No one expects to be provided with the next version of windows, for nothing. While a phone should receive support for the length of the contract, logically there's nothing to say they should receive new updated software. It seems to me that the update cravings are localised mainly to the techy crowd. Mention key lime pie to most 'average ' android users and they don't know what you're talking about. Ask them what version of android they're running, most can't tell you, some might confidently reply JB but version number???
      Little Old Man
      • Your analogy is faulty

        They are called recalls. Nearly ever car company has had at least one. Now you might think there's a big difference between a car catching fire and your phone having a software update, but when you consider a security update might be necessary to secure your phone, otherwise you could loose personal information, I think that both (car on fire, security on phone) are equally important. The article was referring to at the very LEAST security fixes, maybe not getting new features, etc.
  • Google has nothing to do with it but they get the blame.

    As long as the OEM's put there own version of Android on the devices they sell and the Carriers insist on putting there bloatware on them they have the reasonability to update them. Google has nothing to do with it. Google only supports and updates there own Nexus Devices.