Android as a whole is a wonderful thing. An open-source UNIX-like operating system that offers near-endless amounts of customizability and allows manufacturers like Samsung, LG and HTC to build on top of it to make a unique experience (mixed results back then but have greatly improved since 2014) and running on different spectrums of mobile hardware, from the cheapest and smallest smartphone to the most expensive and sophisticated handsets packing in large 1440p displays. In short, Android is open and running on lots of devices with different experiences, but there’s a big pain point in all this “openness”; updates.
One main pain point of Android is that not every Android device gets the latest Android system update at the same time, or sometimes, not at all. Currently, the latest version of Android, Marshmallow, is on 1.2% of all Android devices. Lollipop is next with 5.1 taking 17.1% and 5.0 taking 17.0% and KitKat as a whole has 35.5%. That is not really an even number, made worse by the time taken for different handsets to receive each update. To break it down, let’s compare it with the 2nd most popular mobile OS (and also the one most frequently compared with) – iOS.
iOS is Apple’s own mobile operating system for use on the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. It is also based on UNIX but the overall UX is different from that of Android. Unlike Android, where each and every device does not necessarily run the same taste of Android, like one phone running stock Android and the other running on a skin, iOS more-or-less offers the same experience on every device, no matter how old or how big/small each device is. While this may seem bland and offers limited amounts of customization, the benefits are that since there is no overlay, there is no extra time needed to optimize the overlaid skin for the OS.
Another important factor is that iOS is a locked-down OS, that only runs on Apple devices. There are a total of 29 iOS devices that Apple has made since 2007, of which 20 are supported by the latest version of iOS, 9.2.1. While that looks like a high number, compare that to the number of Android devices out there, where there are over a hundred just in the current flagship class alone. Simply put, because Android is an open-source operating system, it is hard for Google to optimize the base OS for the near-endless hardware combinations out there plus skins. It is up to the OEMs to optimize their skin and hardware for the OS. Unfortunately, some don’t seem to be willing to do so, with Motorola’s decision to not update the Moto E 2015 plus carrier-versions of the 2014 Moto X to Marshmallow being one of the more recent examples (which they since backtracked in the case of the Moto E, albeit only in selected regions)
Which brings us to the topic of Android skins. No two flavors of Android are alike. In fact, due to Android’s open-nature, manufacturers have applied their own overlay on top of Android which gives it a different look and feel while also adding new features. Samsung’s TouchWiz is one of the first to come to mind, as does HTC’s Sense UI, along with others like LG’s G UX, Huawei’s EMotionUI, Xiaomi MIUI, Motoblur (that has since been defunct) and some others. Now, while skins can make updates slower, these days, they’re not as bad as they used to be. Previously, skins were so heavy, they made devices slower and also gave them a significant time penalty for updates. Now, however, there’s a recent trend of scaling back the skin to offer an experience more akin to stock Android while also retaining some design elements and features of the overlay. The most recent version of TouchWiz, HTC Sense and LG UX reflect that ethos. So while skins are responsible somewhat for long update wait times, there’s a bigger effect to that.
In the United States at least, it is not uncommon for cellular carriers to sell carrier-branded versions of an Android device. In fact, HTC, Samsung, LG and others provide carrier models for a particular carrier, like a variant for AT&T and another for T-Mobile. While this might seem like a little tramp-stamp, carriers are actually a significant impact to update wait times. And that’s because carriers actually modify the software on the device. Most of which add unremovable bloat to a phone, like WildTangent Games + AT&T Navigator in the case of the recent Samsung devices. A more drastic case is the Verizon LG G4, where some features like multi user-accounts, a custom lock-screen and other features are removed. Simply put, because of these changes, extra time is needed for these carriers to make all the necessary changes, which adds on top of the time needed for the OEM to optimize their skin. In simple terms, if you buy an unlocked unit, your updates come straight from the manufacturer. If you buy a carrier-branded unit, your carrier provides the update. Apple refuses to allow carriers to make any modification to iOS due to this very reason.
However, sometimes, it’s just due to laziness that devices don’t get updates. Motorola’s recent update fiasco over the 2015 Moto E and carrier versions of the 2014 Moto X are examples. They never really explicitly cite any valid reason for the omission of Marshmallow for the 2 devices, though in the case of the Moto E, they finally backtracked on that and updated it to Marshmallow, albeit in select regions. Many of Xiaomi’s devices are also on KitKat for some unexplained reason. Some chipset makers are also somewhat to blame, as some are pretty hesitant to provide the source code for the processor unless a deal is made, an example being some phones running on certain chips by MediaTek.
Now, this isn’t some pro-Apple propaganda thing. Being an open-source OS by nature, it is not surprising to see Android having longer update times due to the different experience between devices. In a whole, however, many current skins are actually pretty good, to the point where having the latest version of Android isn’t as important as it used to be, reinforced by Google’s monthly security patches, which went up after the StageFright security flaw went up. In a word, Google’s “Be together, not the same” brings with it plenty of advantages along with its own disadvantages. The same applies to iOS and every OS out there. The choice factor is one of the many beauties of Android and that’s why, despite iOS’ better, faster and more consistent update timelines, Android is still my preferred choice for a phone OS.