Perhaps one of the most common complaints against Android by haters and lovers alike is that updates seem to take forever to make their way to the devices. Unless, of course, you have the latest Nexus device, which is typically the first to receive the latest Android update (usually even on the same day of the update announcement).
People who complain compare Android to iOS in this instance, where the majority of iOS devices receive the latest updates in a matter of weeks, while Android devices might not see an update for months at a time. But is it really fair to compare Android to iOS in this instance?
To begin my argument, I would like to point out the fact that Android and iOS use two entirely different models of distribution. Google and the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) develop the latest Android release and, when it is ready for the public, release it into the wild. From there, device manufacturers take the update and begin porting it to work on their devices.
Depending on the degree and intensity of the changes made in a particular Android release, it might take manufacturers weeks or months to properly port and test the update on a device. After all, I would rather have an update that works than one that is filled with glitches and bugs. Wouldn’t anybody, though?
Even after the manufacturers are done, the update usually passes through the wireless carrier, as well, where carriers tweak the system yet again to their liking. This is typically where the bloatware carrier apps are bundled into the system, but also where proprietary binaries that enable the device to talk to the network, such as Verizon with its proprietary CDMA network, are included into the build as well. Then, the process of rolling out the update across the carrier’s range of subscribers take place, the time of which depends entirely on how many devices are set to receive the update.
Apple, on the other hand, keeps everything about iOS contained. It develops the next iteration, but also is responsible for loading it onto the iPhone or iPad. This means that what occurred in two steps for Android (Google developing Android, then manufacturer porting it), occurs in one step for iOS, where the only clients are Apple devices anyway. This enables Apple to get updates for iOS pushed out to all of its devices much more quickly than Google can with Android. The Nexus devices are evidence of this, as they are “pure Google experience” devices, and the software that ships on them is shipped straight from Google. As a result, Nexus devices are updated quickly after a new Android release.
In a way, a good comparison for this is to liken Android to Linux distributions (it practically is one, after all). Distributions have a lot of moving parts, so the software included within them is generally pretty outdated by the time the next major release rolls around. For example, let’s use Debian and GNOME as a deeper example. Whenever a new release of GNOME is unleashed, there is quite a bit of lag time for the Debian maintainers to integrate it into the rest of the distribution. This is true for Android and the manufacturers that use it on their devices. Every time a new release is finished, it takes them time to get it up and running on their devices.
So should we be comparing Android to iOS when it comes to its update schedule, or to that of Linux distributions? Perhaps consumers should be made aware that when they purchase an Android device that is not in Google’s Nexus line, they are signing up for a longer release cycle.
Is it anyone’s fault that this release cycle is longer? Not really. That’s simply the way things are; the increased time consumers spend waiting are generally justified by the amount of time and effort manufacturers put in to polishing and testing their specific distributions of Android.
Is there anything Google can do to improve this process? Perhaps so. It can enforce its 18-month update guarantee for devices by making carriers and manufacturers contractually agree to such a guarantee, rather than leaving it simply as a promise of good faith. The rest of the job, I believe, falls on the manufacturers and the carriers.