Stop me if you've heard this one before: Updates straight from Google = good. Updates that go through carriers, which have to pass certain quality control and network performance tests and are therefore mired in delays and bugs = bad.
That's the story that we often tell people, directly or indirectly, and as a straight narrative it's largely true. But like any narrative in this world, there is nuance. To explain, I'll tell you a story.
Back in 2015, I bought an unlocked Galaxy S6 from eBay. It was a British model, with LTE bands that worked in Canada and software updates that came much more regularly — British carriers do a much better job at this than their North American counterparts, for some reason — than the same model in Canada. (It took Canada's largest carrier, Rogers, until just last month to update the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge to Marshmallow.) But then Rogers launched VoLTE and Wi-Fi Calling for the majority of its new flagships, and I realized that I would never benefit from those features running a British Telecom variant of the GS6.
Fast forward to earlier this year, when I bought a Galaxy S7 edge and embraced Rogers' slow update cadence, knowing full well that the end result would eventually be compatibility with those Enhanced Voice Services (EVS) like VoLTE. It took a few months, but the update came, and I now have those features.
Unless Google has your carrier's specific needs in mind, its network-specific features will likely be overlooked.
This week, I unboxed my shiny,
beautiful new Pixel and slapped that same SIM card in it only to discover it wasn't compatible with VoLTE. This didn't surprise me, but it was frustrating, since Google ostensibly worked with Verizon — its only U.S. carrier partner — to sell the phone down south. It baked those EV services into the software from the beginning. But despite selling the phone at Rogers, Bell, and Telus, Google has not expanded those network-specific features outside of Verizon and T-Mobile, and, according to representatives at the carriers, has no plans to do so.
What does this mean? It means that, sure, your Pixel may be updated directly from the source, but unless Google has your carrier's specific needs in mind, its network-specific features will likely be overlooked.
I can't say with certainty that Google will never add VoLTE and Wi-Fi Calling support for carriers that aren't Verizon and T-Mo, but it does expose one fundamental flaw with these direct-to-consumer updates. Your carrier may delay the hell out of a Galaxy S7 update, but at least, when it does hit your phone, it arrives with you in mind.
Apple has figured this out: It allows providers to roll out independent "carrier settings" bundles upon the insertion of a new SIM card, or when new features are available. These are standalone pieces of software rather than the core OS itself, and therefore don't need to be included alongside new versions of iOS. Google has the capability to do this, but in the past has bifurcated the delivery of Android entirely between itself and the carriers. If Google wants to make the Pixel a true carrier success, though, it may want to set some Apple-like terms, allowing a small amount of software customization without impeding core OS updates as a whole.
I have no doubt that with enough time, and enough complaining, Google will roll out EVS to carriers outside the U.S. But in the meantime, as a Canadian, it's frustrating to use a phone — even if it's the best phone — that lacks the features I've taken for granted for so long.