On Android Software Updates

I’ve come to a realization about why Android manufacturers have such a hard time offering software updates. I’m sure that the carriers complicate things, but the primary reason is that manufacturers don’t make any money after the device is sold. Why would HTC take the time to make the latest version of Android run on a year old device, when they won’t be making any more money from it?

The device has already been purchased by the customer and HTC probably isn’t even manufacturing it anymore. Instead, they’ve already moved on to a new handset with a slightly faster processor and a screen that’s 0.1-inches larger than the last. HTC won’t be making any money selling software for their devices because Android users don’t buy software. And even if they did, I can’t find any evidence that HTC is making a commission on sales in the Android Market. So, with no incentive to release a software update, they abandon the device.

And, this is the biggest problem I have with Android. Forget about the usability issues, forget about the battery life, and forget about the ugly hardware. I purchased the first-generation iPhone on June 29, 2007 and continued to use it until I purchased my current phone, an iPhone 3GS, on June 25, 2009. When I buy the iPhone 5 this summer/fall, it’ll puts the lifespan of my current and previous handsets at about two years each. And during the entire time I used both of those handsets, they were running the most recent version of iOS available from Apple. They might not have had every feature available, but I didn’t have to root my device to get the latest update.

Google announced at I/O yesterday that they are encouraging carriers and device makers to offer software updates for 18 months after devices launch. Meanwhile, Apple has offered software updates to their handsets for an average of 30 months after launch. Why would I purchase a device from a manufacturer that had to be convinced by Google to continue offering updates, when I could get a handset from a company that has been doing it for nearly four years?

Aside from their want to keep customers happy, Apple continues to offer software updates to their iPhones long after their release because Apple makes money from the App Store. Developers don’t want to worry about backwards compatibility with their software — it’s easier to test your app against one version of the OS. Apple supports older hardware because it’s in their best interest to. Keeping a large percentage of their customers on the latest version of the OS allows developers to write code more efficiently by using newer APIs and only having to test on a small number of devices. This means more software is released for the platform and more users are buying software for their devices.

Google may be able to fix this problem by convincing carriers and device makers to support their handsets for 18 months after launch. But, I hope they understand how important this promise is to keep. Users don’t want to feel like they have an old device, but they won’t feel that way if a software update is coming out every few months. A lot of people are buying Android devices right now, but will their next device run Android if their current one feels outdated after just a few months?