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

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.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

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 -->

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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.

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