If you’ve ever used an Android phone that didn’t happen to be a Google branded Nexus, you probably know the feeling. You hear about the latest and greatest version of Android that Google has put together, with all the great new features and bug fixes that your just dying to have. Only problem is, you don’t get actually get the update on your phone for almost six months after the fact. And by then, more than likely the next version has been released. In other words, it feels like your device is constantly stuck in the past.
But why does this have to be the life story of most Android users out there? And why is it that people who have iOS and Windows Phone get to have their phones updated almost immediately after the update is released? Well, for a long time I assumed it was due solely to the manufacturer overlays (UI’s). I figured, the iPhone and Windows Phone didn’t have manufacturer UI’s and got the update almost immediately. And so did the Nexus phones running pure Android. So it had to do 100% with the UI’s, right?
Wrong. Well, at least partially. According to one of Motorola’s executives, Christy Wyatt, the reasons for the long delays between when an update is released and when a phone actually gets updated is because:
When Google does a release of the software … they do a version of the software for whatever phone they just shipped,” she said. “The rest of the ecosystem doesn’t see it until you see it. Hardware is by far the long pole in the tent, with multiple chipsets and multiple radio bands for multiple countries. It’s a big machine to churn.
Motorola understands that consumers want their Android upgrades sooner, but the process is complicated, she said. First there’s hardware support, then the layering in of custom software from manufacturers like Motorola, and finally, phones must be re-certified by carriers, taking more time.
This made sense as soon as I heard it. Google has many times before said that when they develop a new version of the OS, they do it on their current flagship model (from the Nexus line). Meaning, after a manufacturer finally gets the code, it has to then modify the firmware for each of their particular devices (and its unique set of radios, chipsets, etc). This is why you’ll often see the international version of an Android phone get updated before the US version even though the two phones seem identical.
Of course like Wyatt said, software modifications play a role in the update process as well. After the manufacturer has modified the firmware to make sure everything is in working order with the hardware, it has to make sure that their custom UI doesn’t have any bugs due to the changes that came with the new version of the OS. Obviously, this can take a lot of testing (and time) which only adds on to the delay.
And then after all that, the manufacturer has to get the update approved by the carrier (which does extensive testing of its own). Then, five or six months later, you get the update! Not an ideal situation, I know, but perhaps it is the cost of having so many choices available to us. Now, lets get back to the other question I laid out for you: Why do iOS and Windows Phone devices get updated so quickly?
It’s pretty simple really. Neither of them have custom user interfaces to worry about. And Microsoft has set strict hardware guidelines for their manufacturers limiting what kind of hardware (radios, chipsets, etc) they can use. As a result, the update Microsoft releases works on most Windows Phones. And Apple, on the other hand, only has two or three devices they have to update in the first place (and have the code to prepare the update from the day they start working on it).