Apple is far from perfect, but if there is one thing they have demonstrated in the mobile space, it is how to ensure that nearly all users have the latest possible operating system revision as quickly as possible, and to keep updating those systems as long as the hardware is sustainable (obviously this is setting aside things like ‘Siri exclusivity’ and so on).
Google and Android on the other hand seem to operate on a couple of different mantras – WYSIWYG and Caveat Emptor. In other words, do not ever expect anything except what you buy … and be careful what you buy. Let’s take a look at each one:
Back in April HTC made a big announcement about simplifying their product offerings in 2012, which was exemplified with the One series. The HTC One X launched in mid-May and was widely reviewed as perhaps the best Android smartphone available on release. But then we got the Samsung Galaxy S III, the Motorola Droid Razr M, HD and Maxx, the announcement of the Nokia Lumia 920 and most recently the launch of the iPhone 5.
So what does HTC do to deal with ever shrinking market share and disappearing profit margins? Naturally they announce the HTC One X+, as Doug reported here! It looks pretty much like the HTC One X … but with some improved internals including a quad-core processor and 64GB of storage, along with the same great screen and launching with Jelly Bean (which is good – assuming ANY Android device runs the latest OS is laughable at this point).
That is great … except that anyone who bought the ‘flagship’ of HTC’s new ‘streamlined and less confusing’ product stream STILL HAS TWENTY MONTHS ON THEIR CONTRACT. And naturally the HTC One X has ALREADY lost value on new and used retail markets – so that HTC One X you paid top dollar for three months ago is suddenly at bargain basement prices. This is the greatest thing since Nokia announced the ‘flagship Windows Phone device’ … and Microsoft obsoleted it with no upgrade path two months later.
Contrast this with Samsung. I have a Galaxy SIII in my pocket right now. Guess when the next Galaxy phone will launch? Sometime next spring/early summer. The Galaxy Note came out last fall … and the Galaxy Note II is launching this month. Samsung has learned from Apple (amongst other things) that consumers constantly feel like they are making the wrong tech decision – paying too much, buying at the wrong time, whatever – so the comfort of planned launches actually breeds brand loyalty. If I was going to buy a Macbook Air now I would make sure to get a good price since the new one is just a few months away. If I was buying from Sony or Dell … I would have no clue what was happening when.
So HTC has decided to clean up their … naming convention. But they have missed out on the opportunity to actually make the experience better for consumers by making anyone who bought the HTC One X feel like an idiot because their phone will be last-gen for 85% of the contract life. And HTC wonders why their stock is in the tank?!?
Way back in May 2011 we got a huge promise led by Google that sought to address fragmentation:
At the Google I/O conference in May, many Android phone vendors and U.S. wireless carriers made a long-awaited promise: From then on, any new Android phone would receive timely OS updates for at least 18 months following launch, as part of the then newly christened Google Update Alliance.
That promise lasted about … well, zero seconds as it simply never happened. Nice cozy press moment followed by the last 18 months of business as usual and abandoned phones. In fact the so-called ‘Android Update Alliance’ hasn’t been mentioned since!
As a result, the situation we have now is actually WORSE than it was in May 2011. The VAST majority of devices are currently at least TWO OS VERSIONS BEHIND. Even the Galaxy SIII in my pocket is on the 2011 OS version at this point, with an update *expected* soon but not guaranteed.
And as many Motorola owners found out, you can’t even trust the promise of an update. The Motorola Photon 4G was a flagship device in 2011 released with the promise of a Ice Cream Sandwich update. And twice during this year Motorola confirmed that the update was coming … until last week when they confirmed that it was NOT coming. In fact several Motorola phones previously listed as getting updates are now stuck on Gingerbread. And while Gingerbread is a fine operating system, it is getting old and has many of the warts and issues addressed in more recent versions – it would be like having a iPhone 4 stuck on iOS 4 – functionally fine, but compared to iOS 6 completely outdated.
And Motorola is far from the only one. In fact MOST Android vendors put out more phones than they can reasonably hope to support (Motorola’s excuse) and then only supporting the ones that SELL. Ask HTC about the oft-promised and not-yet-delivered Thunderbolt update, Samsung about some variants of the Galaxy S2, LG about the Optimus 2X and so on.
As of right now nearly 25% of Android phones are on a 4.x variant (Ice Cream Sandwich or Jelly Bean). Of the devices that are getting updated from Gingerbread to Ice Cream Sandwich, realistically MOST will NOT ever see Jelly Bean. So something like the Motorola Droid 4, released 6 months after Ice Cream Sandwich was available with Gingerbread loaded and only recently updated to ICS … will never see Jelly Bean. This in spite of Motorola being part of the ‘Android Update Alliance’ and the 18 month window going through August of 2013.
That is my basic point – anyone expecting ANY support other than technical assistance with hardware WILL be disappointed. Google won’t take responsibility, the handset makers want you to buy a new phone, and the carriers want you on contract forever. And if they know that they can lie about updates and you will still buy … THAT is what they will do.
Back to the Bad Old Days
Dan and I and others at Gear Diary have repeatedly compared Android to Windows mobile: updates are slow and sporadic and no one takes accountability; vendor tweaks mean no two phones accomplish the same task the same way; ‘mystery slowdowns’ coming from *somewhere* (OS, skin, hardware, etc) cause frustration and the feeling of your device rapidly slowing over the first six months (like your Windows PC) … and so on.
I tend to think of it more like the heyday of the feature-phone around 2006-7. Ringtones were selling for $3.99, navigation was $10 a month, email was $10 a month, and basically people bought phones with no expectation of updates and only the hope it would last until the next subsidized phone two years later. In that model Google doesn’t have to pretend to care about ‘customers’, handset makers can just churn hardware, and carriers can keep people locked in forever.
Many times I have lamented how the iPhone model seemed like an opportunity to change that model … but sadly many consumers seem happy to buy hardware that is essentially abandoned at birth, with a new version to replace it within a couple of months, and any promised updates lost once the sale is complete.
That is the reality of the Android world – your ‘flagship’ is outdated before you leave the store, and hopefully you like how your phone runs because chances are it will never see an update.