Update Me

Here we go again. Another year, another "Let's see how long it takes Android updates to roll out" story. The latest comes from Ars Technica, titled "The checkered, slow history of Android handset updates." It takes a look at how long it takes manufacturers to push out major releases to their handsets. Lots of charts. Lots of months. All done with the misconception that phones must be upgraded to the next, major release of Android, or something's wrong.

Only, here's the last graf of Casey Johnston's piece:.

Updates certainly aren't the most important aspect of picking a new phone—if an OS version works well, then you may be content simply to stick with that. But for those who like the latest and greatest, it’s clear that the need for update improvements plagues the entire Android ecosystem.

Hang on. There are, like, 30 paragraphs detailing things that, in the end, Ars says "aren't the most important aspect of picking a new phone." So what did we just finish reading? Circumstantial evidence that shows ... what? Android is not iOS?

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Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon.

So how long should a major update take? We'd really like to know

Ars does get close to the real reason toward the beginning of its conclusion. Writes Johnston:

Even the notion itself of software updates after hardware release is still a relatively new concept, let alone the idea that hardware owners are entitled to feature-based updates. Everyone involved is still getting the hang of this. While we can look at the numbers and try to draw conclusions, there may be factors that we, as outsiders to these companies, can’t account for here. Some handsets may receive late or no updates because they sold poorly, or because they were held back or delayed because of a company’s UI overlay.

This. This is the most important paragraph in the piece. This is the part so many people seem to not understand, and we largely have the iPhone to blame. Apple did a commendable job creating a single, vertical platform with the iPhone and iOS. It's not quite a single-phone ecosystem -- there are small carrier variations, but those have largely coalesced into what now is the iPhone 5. But the point Apple designed the iPhone and iOS to be controlled by Apple. As few devices as possible, with the variants so close together on the evolutionary ladder that updates can -- and do -- come much easier, much quicker. It's a quick, quiet river, moving right along. All controlled by Apple. Not a OEM. Not a carrier. Apple. If your goal is consistency and control, this is how to do it.

Android, on the other hand, is a whole mess of ecosystems that happen to use the same OS. There's Samsung Land. And Motorola World. And the happy place that is HTC Hollow. And moving between them is more like simultaneously traversing the Mississippi River and Panama Canal, with its twists and turns and changes in elevation. Toss in the whitewater-rapids pace of hardware development and, no -- you absolutely will not see equal updates between phones, manufacturers or carriers. Not every phone will get every update. Period.

We are users. We're not engineers. We're not coders. We don't have a clue as to what it takes to update a device. Not a single person I've talked to -- up to an including the folks who make phones for a living -- has been able to answer this question: "How long should it take for an update to reach your phone from the moment the code is made available?" And we're not in meetings with the carriers when they're deciding which resources to put toward major updates for phones that might not be as popular as you'd like (that's a tough reality), and which should go toward new phones. But this is business. It's not personal.

We've been spoiled by the way Apple's done things, both in mobile and on the traditional computing side. That's not a bad thing. That's the way updates should be done, and it's the way the will be done in a vertical ecosystem like iOS. But Android is not designed for that to happen. It may never be.

Don't ignore the really important updates

Another point that needs to be mentioned: Ars is ignoring "point" updates. That's fine, and they're transparent about it. But I'd argue that "point" updates -- or maintenance releases -- are more important. (An Ars commenter mentioned this, too.) They fix things that are broken. They're the ones that need to be worried about more in the life cycle of the phone. Look no further than this week's Samsung Exynos brouhaha. That's something that needs to be fixed, ASAP. That's a benchmark that needs to be taken more seriously. It's a bit of a Catch-22. You want to see as few maintenance releases as necessary. But when one's needed, it needs to get pushed out as quickly as possible.

Ars isn't alone here. We had this same talk more than a year ago when CNET's Molly Wood got all up in arms over the "fragmentation" bogeyman. We've seen other such update "studies" published that all ignore the simple fact that Android is not designed the same as iOS. As much as we'd like it, updates won't magically appear a month after Google releases the code publicly. Not every phone is created equal. Some will be left behind.

Maybe, just maybe, things are moving quicker

But consider this: Android 4.1 was released to the Android Open Source Project on July 9, 2012, and five months later we're seeing updates from Samsung. From Motorola. From HTC. (And those are but a few phones seeing upates this holiday season.) Sony, which Ars didn't mention in its piece, says we'll see updates in February and March. LG's bringing updates in the new year.

Of course, none of this matters if the manufacturers and carriers don't deliver. But the Android update process is complex, and it isn't as dire as some would have  you believe.