Google makes Android, but Samsung increasingly owns Android. And that's a problem for updates.
In Canada, we have seasons. It's currently winter, and therefore cold. Not so cold, but enough to change the snow to rain and back again, and it's been doing a fair amount of both lately.
But aside from cold hands and wet feet, this type of weather isn't great for most Android phones, and only one in my lineup right now is IP68 water resistant: the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge. But as wonderful and beautiful as that phone is — and despite the presence of a Micro-USB, it's barely aged a day — its success is actively being undermined by the fact that it's running Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow, and has been since I got it in March.
More than ever Google's Android strategy is permanently and inextricably aligned with Samsung's
With Samsung officially rolling out Nougat to its GS7 lineup, the time is ripe for talking about how much influence the company has over how Android's update-reliant fragmentation is seen by the world. But this is not just about Samsung's flagships, either. No, looking at this month's Android version distribution numbers, it occurred to me that more than ever Google's Android strategy is permanently and inextricably aligned with Samsung's as long as the former develops the OS for free and the latter keeps building the world's most popular phones on top of it.
And while we've heard rumors for years that Mountain View will take Android updates into its own hands, the most likely scenario is one that's playing out already: Google releasing annual updates to its Pixel line and keeping those running the latest version of its mobile OS for as long as possible.
In the meantime, it's hard to look at the paucity of phones out there running Nougat without levelling some of the blame directly at Samsung. While the Korean giant has certainly had a tough few months, potentially pushing back the release of Android 7.0 for its non-exploding phones, there's no question Samsung has a dubious track record for expeditious updates. A flick of the switch on a couple of generations of handsets would singlehandedly quintuple the number of phones running the latest version of Android.
It's going on six months since Android 7.0's official release on Nexus devices.
This time, Samsung did do things a little differently by offering a public (though hard-to-sign-up-for) beta of Nougat for the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge, but as valuable as such a process will be to the overall stability and performance of the phone's eventual release candidate, it will be nearly a full year after Android N was announced, and going on six months since Android 7.0's official release on Nexus devices.
The cold hard data
Even though Samsung begins its Nougat trickle next week, it will be months before all 50 million or so units get it — the majority will have been sold through carrier channels, most of whom perform their own extensive quality control — and many of those may receive the older Android 7.0 instead of the more recent Android 7.1.1. Again, this is nothing new. But based on new data from Kantar WorldPanel, Samsung's latest phones captured 28.9% of holiday sales, sitting closely behind the iPhone as the most popular devices in the U.S. That's millions of phones unboxed during the busiest season of the year running year-old Android software.
That same data from Kantar claims Google's Pixel phones accounted for just 1.3% of the smartphones sold in the same period, and more than half of that business was done from a single carrier, Verizon. Most people in the U.S. still buy their phones through carriers, and thanks to the longevity of hardware, last-generation devices are still being offered at tremendous discounts to people who just want something that works.
Devices like the Galaxy A and Galaxy J are the devices sold and forgotten, never receiving the upgrades us early adopters so crave.
Moving down the line, Samsung's A and J series are competent devices that, according to IDC, comprise the majority of the company's smartphone shipments every quarter. These are the devices sold and forgotten, never receiving the upgrades us early adopters so crave. But the longer replacement cycle of smartphones coupled with the fact that Samsung has little incentive to invest the considerable engineering time to even issue security updates to those entry-level and mid-range phones, let alone the updated Android code, means that we'll likely see slower uptake of Google's latest Android versions unless the cycle is broken. Same goes for older flagships like the Galaxy S6, Galaxy S5 — even the Galaxy S4, which Verizon still sells — which are still being purchased in the millions.
This isn't really Samsung's fault, either. The company has a right to support or neglect its phones as it sees fit, and millions of customers are obviously speaking with their wallets by continuing to purchase Galaxys over competing Android devices, most of which have better update track records. But that Android's long-term health is so caught up in Samsung's own update strategy can't sit well with Google, and the Pixel's modest success hasn't, and likely won't for some time, positively impact Mountain View's own desire to get the Platonic ideal into as many pockets as possible.
Well, I guess there's always next year.
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