This is not a good chart

Let’s not mince words here: This “Android and iPhone Update History” chart is not a good chart. Oh, it’s a pretty chart, to be sure artfully illustrated and researched. But this chart -- done up by Michael Degusta at The Understatement and reposted by anyone unable to think clearly, apparently -- is not a good chart. Or at the very least, it fails to recognize a fundamental difference between Android and iOS and the iPhone.

Let’s back up: The updates chart, part of the “Android Orphans: Visualizing a Sad History of Support,” shows how Android phones released through the second quarter of 2010 have failed to be continuously updated to the latest major version of Android (ie Froyo or Gingerbread). Meanwhile, the iPhone, iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 are all on the most current version of iOS.

Degusta actually starts out on point. The Nexus One won’t officially be updated to the latest major version of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich. And Degusta rightly realizes that the Nexus One, closing in on its second birthday, actually has made it through two major upgrades -- Froyo and Gingerbread. Two years of life, two major upgrades. That’s not too shabby, and it’s also exactly what we should expect from a Nexus phone, which is updated directly from Google, and not the manufacturer or carrier.

So back to the chart. It takes phones released (in the United States) through the second quarter of 2010, showing in handy green, yellow, orange and red colors just how many major updates behind a particular phone may be. But look again at the phones that are listed.

The HTC Hero. The Samsung Moment. The Motorola Cliq. The HTC Droid Eris. The Samsung Behold II. The Motorola Devour. The Motorola Backflip. The Motorola Cliq XT. The LG Ally. The Garmin Garminfone. The HTC Aria. Those are the lower-end devices Degusta has charted along with the high-end HTC EVO 4G and Droid Incredible.  And the Nexus One. And the original Motorola Droid. Once again, low-end phones are placed on a level playing field with high-end devices. It is going to make for a lopsided chart. And it has, again and again.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Not every Android phone deserves updates to the latest major Android version. (And we'll probably have to say it again.) Look at that list of phones there. With apologies to the many owners of those phones, you can’t honestly say that carriers and manufacturers should spend the time and money to update them to Gingerbread.

Here’s the thing: Steve Jobs once called Android a commodity. He’s right. Or, at least, he is partially. Android phones have become a commodity in addition to being the cream of the crop. They co-exist. Walk into any U.S. carrier store or big-box retailer and you see it. High-end phones and tablets right next to entry-level devices and craplets. It's also exactly what Google had in mind. Android everywhere. (We're tradmarking that, by the way.)

The problem isn’t “fragmentation.” It’s not that a phone that’s a year and a half old isn’t running the latest version of code that just dumped into the AOSP last week. If you want that, you need a custom ROM. (Hell, even the Nexus phones can’t keep up with official updates as quickly as the AOSP devs, but that’s hardly a surprise, either.)

The problem Android has is dilution.

The carriers have diluted the market so much that it’s impossible for them to give each phone equal attention. Not that they should, necessarily, but they’ve still made it impossible. And notice that we said carriers here, and not manufacturers. In the U.S., as you (should) well know, the carriers are the ones responsible for this mess. It’s not like Motorola or HTC or Samsung or LG sneaks into the store and night, each leaving a  half-dozen phones and hoping the poor reps can figure it out in the morning. (Though it does sometimes seem like that’s the case.)

There are too many phones for the carriers and manufacturers to support equally. It just can’t be done. That’s not Android’s fault. Google’s releasing the code. Does it have a responsibility to ensure that every phone receives that code in a timely manner? That’s certainly open to debate, and the Android Update Alliance announced in the spring is at least a small step in the right direction. (We’d love an update on that at some point, Google.)

Back to the latest misguided chart, though.

You have to understand (or at least be willing to understand) that iPhones and Android phones are completely different animals. The iPhone is a completely vertical system. A single hardware platform absolutely makes controlling the upgrade process a less difficult (we’ll not call it “easy” for anyone) endeavor.

But a chart that shows that every iPhone is on the latest version of iOS doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t show that the original iPhone didn't get updated to iOS 5. It's been "fragmented" out. And it doesn't show that an iPhone 3G doesn’t run iOS 5 anywhere near as well as an iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S. And it doesn’t show that the iPhone 4 is lacking a major feature found on the iPhone 4S, the one that’s currently featured in commercials -- Siri. If that’s not “fragmentation,” we don’t know what is.

But Degusta’s chart doesn’t show that. It just paints the pretty picture that iPhones are updated, Android phones aren’t. That the vertically designed, Apple-controlled iPhones are updated, and Android phones -- which were designed with an entirely different implementation philosophy -- aren’t.

If you ignore the misleading chart and similarly misleading bullet points, Degusta’s conclusions mirror a lot of our own over the past couple of years. The updating of Android phones often is a crapshoot. But what we wrote recently remains true: Are you staying up nights waiting for an upgrade because you have just have to have to be on the latest version? If you’re reading this, then you might well be. Or you might have rooted and ROM’d by now. (And if so, good on ya!) The rest of world? The “normal” consumers? Not so much.

Android updates aren’t the same as iOS updates, and they’re not going to be. That doesn’t mean we don’t want a more streamlined and certain update process. We most certainly do. It’s probably the biggest perceived strike against Android, even if it’s largely in our heads. But perception can be a big deal, just as those who read this chart came away with (or went into it with) a certain perception about Android.

But just because something’s in a chart doesn’t mean it tells the whole story. Or a real story. Or the right story.

Coming up: How to set your upgrade expectations