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Google's as much to blame for lousy Android update policies as phone makers

Update screen on a Motorola phone
Update screen on a Motorola phone (Image credit: Joe Maring / Android Central)

The debate around Android updates is far from a new one. Everyone likes getting updates, every phone would benefit from years of guaranteed support, and most companies still drop the ball in this regard in one way or another. It's no secret that there's a lot of work to be done on this front, but as we begin 2021, the ugly face of lacking software support is rearing its head in a particularly nasty way.

In one corner, we have Motorola's latest batch of budget Android phones — the Moto G Play, Moto G Power, Moto G Stylus, and Motorola One 5G Ace. All of them ship with Android 10 out of the box and are promised just one OS update to Android 11. Motorola's long-held this single update policy for its budget devices, but it feels especially damning this year seeing as how the one update is being used to get the phones off of now-outdated software.

We see an identical situation with OnePlus's foray into the cheap Android niche with the OnePlus N10 5G and N1000. These two phones are also promised one "major Android update," and like those Motorola phones, that update is to get them off Android 10 and on Android 11.

Android 11 review

Source: Harish Jonnalagadda / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Harish Jonnalagadda / Android Central)

This isn't the first time we've seen something like this, but considering these new handsets are bound to be among the best-selling budget smartphones in the United States, they deserve greater criticism. Someone shopping for a $200 to $300 phone doesn't have many other options outside of what Motorola and OnePlus are offering, so why should they be punished with a phone that'll be end-of-life in a matter of months?

Certain brands have gotten away with unacceptable update policies for far too long.

It's not fair in the slightest, and as you'd rightfully think, Motorola and OnePlus need to be held accountable for crummy moves like this. But here's another thought — why should they? Motorola's been getting away with single-update phones for years, OnePlus is doing it now, and no one is stopping them. They know they can do this given scarce competition, it saves them time/money, and that extra profit is worth a few Android nerds being upset online.

It's clear that brands like Motorola and OnePlus have no will or intention to do right by their customers, so maybe it's time to start pointing the finger at someone else. Someone like Google.

No matter what company you buy an Android phone from, at the end of the day it's running software created and owned by Google. It's a platform that Google is ultimately responsible for, and regardless how much the company talks about its efforts with Project Treble, it's still the one that allows brands like Motorola and OnePlus to ship phones on outdated software, update them to the current version, and then tell you to have a nice day.

Google Campus Logo

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

If Google wanted to, it could — and should — put an end to this nonsense. Programs like Project Treble are great for companies that choose to use them, but if we're still having devices shipping on old software and only ever being updated to a version that's now months old, something isn't working.

So, what's the solution? Google could say that if brands want to use Android for their devices they need to commit to a certain window of support. Phones need to ship on whatever the most recent Android version is, at least two years of major OS updates need to happen, and then it's up for those companies to decide where to go from there.

I'm not sure if more authoritarian control over Android would play nicely in the real world, but something has to change if we want to see any progress on this front. The Moto G Stylus and OnePlus N10 5G are still bound to be among the best cheap Android phones for 2021, but that doesn't mean the shortcuts the company took are OK.

An ideal world would see Motorola, OnePlus, and others addressing updates themselves. If that continues to not happen, Google needs to step in and doing something. It's long overdue.

Joe Maring was a Senior Editor for Android Central between 2017 and 2021. You can reach him on Twitter at @JoeMaring1.

  • I think Google's approach now is, if you want a cheap phone with updates, get a Pixel. You want a flagship with updates, get a Pixel.
  • The problem is, even the 4a isn't a cheap phone.
  • And the Pixel 5 isn't a flagship.
  • You put in the article what phone you should get. if you want a mid-range phone that has decent specs and guaranteed updates just get a pixel. You want companies to change and stop doing this ******** then tell your readers to not buy the phones and to get a pixel that does have updates. I don't know why anybody buys Moto phones anymore, the camera suck, the updates suck, for the same price you can get a pixel or a Nokia phone that gets better support.
  • Carrier subsidization. Most of the phones mentioned here will be either "free" or have a significant price reduction with a number port/carrier switch. Nokia doesn't offer that many models with US carriers AFAIK and their devices are only on Cricket and Verizon if I remember correctly. Google Pixels are also not widely available for purchase from major MVNO carriers like Metro By T-mobile, Cricket, Boost, etc.
  • Well, I have a more than 2 years old Redmi Note 6 Pro that just got updated to MIUI 12 and I'm not missing on any noteworthy features on that device.
  • Outside of Pixels there’s no Android phone company that values updates at all. It’s one of the most frustrating things about Android in general and made me buy the iPhone 11 Pro. I would love if companies followed on their promises but if Treble didn’t help with updates nothing will.
  • Then just buy a Pixel. Pretty simple actually.
  • I think Samsung is starting to care more about updates than before with them offering 3 years of OS updates now and most of Samsung's current flagships like the Note 20 Ultra already on Android 11 now
  • The phones mentioned in this article are cheap because of their update policy. Basically, they don't want to incur costs associated with long term support. If Google demanded additional longer support, these phones would cost more. You'd be surprised how many people don't care about guaranteed updates, and just want an economical phone that performs decently and will last a few years. Thinking about my friends/acquaintances/associates, I estimate that this matters to less than 25% of them, and those that do care already gravitate towards the more expensive phones.
  • Agreed! In fact many OS upgrades (not security updates or patches) but entire OS upgrades cause more problems than they ever solve! The vast majority of end users just want a communication device that works...period. Now if they are willing and able to spend a gazillion dollars on their phone of choice then it should last at least 3 years, and receive regular (monthly) security updates. If they can only afford a 200.00 or 300.00 dollar phone then it may only last a couple of years. OS upgrades are not all they're cracked up to be!
  • I would never spend a gazillion dollars on a phone. Much less $1k...
  • Even Samsung is doing better with their mid rany phones in regards to updates but still not as good as Nokia which nobody cares about, even I won't touch Nokia again as their phones are just meh and 2 years of software updates isn't good enough anymore and even their more expensive phones only get 2 years of software updates and 3 years of security patches and oneplus are getting poor with their updates as as well and is a factor in why I have an iPhone again and will probably remain with Apple now as my main phone.
  • Although Nokia ship phones with an out of date OS, they do give you another 2 years of OS updates and 3 years of security patches. That's the main reason I stick with Nokia in the lower end price bracket. I would have thought that the author would have mentioned this.
  • 2 years of updates isn't good enough anymore and is why I'll steer clear of Nokia. Android One is a failure.
  • Google is not responsible for what version of Android OEM's put on their phones. Android it's open, and part of that openness is that OEM's have autonomy over their devices. It's Motorola has an old version of Android and will only offer one update, that's on them, not Google.
  • With that attitude, Google doesn't have to worry as Apple slowly nibble away at the mid-tier phone segment as well. The entire ecosystem of Android is screwed-up and lagging. It's not just phones. Tablets, earphones, watches - integration with laptops is all quickly looking to be the gold standard that Apple has invested well for the long-term and the dividends are beginning to show while Google keeps ignoring products, killing lines and rehashing old crap. This dire situation is completely Google's fault only. They don't know how to partner and are even worse at 'pushing' their partners. Google has the keys to the kingdom with Play Store license - it should be used to change the game or at least set established product operating standards. The problem is that then Google will also have to live by them and they can barely manage the 2-3 models of mobile devices they squeeze out (in #) every few minutes.
  • Only Samsung compete directly with Apple on all fronts, without Samsung Android would be in real trouble!
  • That's very true, Samsung made Android what it is today and even now Google is taking features Samsung had years ago and baking them into Android. Honestly I'm just glad I have an iPhone (11 Pro Max) because because the update situation on Android is ridiculous. I'm already on iOS 14.3 on my iPhone where as my OnePlus 7T is still on Android 10 which it was supposed to get Android 11 last month but some excuse about technical issues means it's delayed now.
  • "Rehashing Old Crap"
    For a minute there, I thought you were talking about Android Central.....
  • We have become a throwaway world. A phone that costs as much as three months worth of lattes isn't expected to last for years. The fact that the people who buy $200 phones don't usually have a latte every day is irrelevant to the people who do, and they are the ones who decide what is too expensive to include in that $200. The coming transition of the wireless carriers will be a boon for phone sellers. None of my old phones will be working then, and maybe not the one I use every day. It depends on which list I look at. How many of the cheap phones today will still work in two years regardless of operating system version.
  • Given how Google is already facing major antitrust scrutiny (rightly or wrongly), such a change would not look good on their part. The major barrier to long term support seems to be Qualcomm's exorbitant fees more than anything else.
  • I think the problem is with Google not putting their foot down in terms of updates as they don't want to upset OEMs by getting all Apple with updates hopefully with Samsung committing to at least 3 years of updates now, other OEMs will take updates more seriously, I mean look at Samsung's improvement with updates with most of their recent flagships having Android 11 already. I agree with everything in this article, but most of the commentators on here will not care about updates as they change phones frequently.
  • The problem with this is because Android (kernels) have to be custom built per device, requiring OEMs to update their phones would drive up their costs and basically wipe out smaller OEMs as well as low cost phones. TL,DR: every Android OEM that isn't Google or Samsung would be dead. I agree it's a huge problem, but the real solution here is to get OEMs to upstream their device drivers to the mainline Linux kernel.
  • Maybe wiping out smaller OEMs is what it will take for Android updates to improve and if that's what it will take then so be it, I'd rather have less garbage phones if it will improve the lousy Android updates situation.
  • I would say consumers are to blame. They purchased the phone knowing the update policy or not caring if the phone is updated at all. If that's the attitude of their customer base why would companies change? Until consumers say we're not purchasing your phone unless you offer a more robust update policy nothing will change
  • I'm using a MotoG7 Power, and am looking into replacing it with a newer Moto, but why should I when the newer ones will also be running Android 10? Makes no sense to buy a new phone? Get the carriers involve too
  • This is exactly why I will not be switching back to Android anytime soon. Freaking ridiculous that Android has been a thing 12 years (officially in the public eye) and this is still a issue. Google won't do anything cause they can barely focus on something for longer than a couple years. 
  • It's one of the mayor reasons why I switched back to iPhone as my main phone plus iOS is a more polished experience. I have a OnePlus 7T which is still stuck on Android 10 which should have been updated last month but apparently technical issues means it's delayed but knowing OnePlus it will be an age before I get Android 11 on my device as they always prioritize their recent phones.