The latest platform distribution numbers reveal a familiar, sad state of affairs about Android fragmentation.
The problem behind the slow pace of device updates was spotlighted with the revelation of the recent Stagefright vulnerability. While Apple can push out an update to all of its iOS devices at once, Google’s hands are tied. So unless your phone’s manufacturer steps up their game and issues Google’s Stagefright patch, and your carrier pushes the update out to you, you’re stuck.
It’s up to smartphone manufacturers to implement updates for their customized versions of Android. Unless it’s unlocked and sold directly to you, carriers must approve the updates. This usually comes after they run their own tests, further slowing down the process.
This situation is the result of choices made long ago. When the iPhone was taking off, Google offered up Android to phone manufacturers as the perfect marriage of convenience: Samsung, Motorola, and others could build smartphones to rival the iPhone with Google’s free software. They were able to customize and tweak at will, and Google was happy to get its services out on so many devices.
However, many phone makers and carriers have been terrible stewards, adding in junkware, slow and cumbersome interfaces, and responding far too slowly to Android operating system updates. It didn’t help that Android Lollipop initially launched with a fleet of bugs to work through. Oftentimes there are problems in compatibility with the hardware chosen by Android device makers, which requires collaboration among the different entities involved.
The bottom line? Android OS updates are a mess. If you want a phone that’s going to get updated quickly your best bet is a Nexus device. Fortunately, there may be a Nexus 5 and Nexus 6 refresh coming this year, so a giant six-inch phone isn’t your only option. Other phone makers that stick close to stock Android and sell unlocked phones direct to consumers, circumventing carriers, are a good choice. Motorola and OnePlus are prominent examples.
If Google doesn’t figure out a way to dramatically speed up the breadth of Android OS adoption, it is in danger of collapsing into a disjointed security nightmare. Just being too big to fail isn’t a solution.