Several times a year, Google releases a new version of Android with new features and performance improvements. Unfortunately, most Android devices in the wild will never get the update.
New Android users are often disappointed to discover that their shiny new smartphone won’t get any updates – or worse, that it was running old software from the moment they bought it.
Image Credit: Johan Larsson on Flickr
The Android Ecosystem
Unlike Apple’s ecosystem, where Apple releases a single iPhone each generation, Android is a much more open (and messy) environment. Any manufacturer can make a smartphone or tablet, throw Android on it, and release it. While there have been six iPhones released since 2007, over 800 different models of Android phones have been released in the same period of time.
Android phones use a wide variety of different hardware. Some phones are made to be super-cheap, available free on contract or for inexpensive purchase by people in developing countries. Some are “flagship” phones with more advanced hardware than the iPhone.
Android even powers other types of devices – everything from refrigerators and televisions to video screens embedded in print magazines.
Image Credit: Mike Babcock on Flickr
Why You Probably Can’t Update Your Phone
To make Android work on their hardware, device manufacturers must write Android device drives for their hardware. These are often closed-source, so device manufacturers have to update them on their own. Google can’t just release a new version of Android that works on all devices – manufacturers have to update the drivers to work with newer versions of Android.
Android smartphone manufacturers are also beholden to cell phone carriers, who can delay updates by months on their networks. While Apple has the muscle to overrule carriers and roll out new versions of their operating system, Android phone manufacturers do not.
Some new versions of Android come with increased hardware requirements. This prevents them from working on holder devices – the same is true in the iPhone and Windows Phone worlds, where new operating systems occasionally drop support for older devices.
More controversially, Android OEMs also add their own tweaks and skins on top of the Android operating system. These include Samsung’s TouchWiz, HTC’s Sense, Motorola’s Motoblur, and others. In addition to adding custom launchers, OEMs tweak included apps to add and remove features. They’re convinced that this helps differentiate their products in the market, although diehard stock Android enthusiasts disagree.
When a new version of Android is released, OEMS have to port their custom software and tweaks to the latest version. In some cases, the custom software is incompatible. For example, Samsung never updated the original Galaxy S to Android 4.0 – Samsung said that the phone did not have enough RAM to run TouchWiz and Android 4.0 at the same time. While many cried out for Samsung to drop TouchWiz on the Galaxy S, Samsung refused – Galaxy S owners are either using Android 2.3 or a community-developed ROM like CyanogenMod.
Image Credit: Vernon Chan on Flickr
Android OEMs and carriers often aren’t very interested in updating devices after they’re released. With the large amount of models being released, there’s no incentive to put a lot of work into updating an older model that’s been replaced by a newer one. OEMs and carriers also want to encourage you to buy newer devices, anyway.
iPhone & Windows Phone Updates
While we bemoan the Android update situation, it’s only appropriate to take a look at how Apple and Microsoft are doing with updates.
Apple fans generally point out that Apple updates older iPhones with the latest version of iOS. This is true, but the situation isn’t as rosy as it seems. While new versions of iOS come to older iPhones and iPads, many features are omitted. The iPhone 3GS runs iOS 6, the latest version of iOS, but it lacks turn-by-turn navigation, Siri, location-based reminders, FaceTime, AirPlay mirroring, Wi-Fi personal hotspot, and other important features. iPhone owners have also complained that new versions of iOS are heavier and can slow down an older iPhone. Apple eventually drops support for older iPhone models, too.
While Apple’s definitely doing a better job of updating iPhones, older iPhones aren’t running the latest-and-greatest software, either – just like older Android phones.
The Windows Phone situation has been even worse. With the jump from Windows Mobile 6 to Windows Phone 7, no devices were upgraded. While Microsoft initially made waves with a “Where’s My Phone Update?” site that allowed users to track when the latest version of Windows Phone would be available for their device and see which carriers were delaying the roll-out, this site has since been shut down. With the update from Windows Phone 7 to Windows Phone 8, no Windows Phone 7 phones were updated to Windows Phone 8, either. With each generation, users had to buy a new phone to get the latest and greatest software. While Microsoft promises a minimum of 18 months of updates for Windows Phone 8 devices, that’s little comfort to people stuck with fairly new Windows Phone 7 phones that will never be updated to Windows Phone 8.
Community-Developed Android Updates
Android is open-source, so it’s possible for Android users to take its source code and roll their own operating systems – known as a custom ROM – for their smartphones. If you have a reasonably popular device, there are likely other Android users out there developing and tweaking custom ROMs for it. Custom ROMs aren’t officially supported and require more tweaking to install than the average Android user would want to do, but many Android geeks use and love custom ROMs.
Custom ROMs allow Android geeks to buy hardware they like – such as the Galaxy S3 or HTC One X – and install a more stock Android operating system on it, removing the manufacturer’s software customizations and updating the operating system to the latest version. Popular Android phones are more likely to be supported.
CyanogenMod is the most popular community-developed ROM for Android. You can find more information about custom ROMS for your Android device by looking at the XDA Developers forum and checking the subforum for your specific device. If your manufacturer won’t update your device, you may find that the Android community has already updated it.
Image Credit: Claudia Rahanmetan on Flickr
Devices That Receive Official Updates
If you don’t want to do any tweaking and wish your smartphone would receive automatic updates, it’s important to buy the right phone.
- Google’s Nexus smartphones (and tablets) are the platform Google uses to provide a “pure Android” experience. When you buy a Nexus phone, you’re generally assured that it will receive updates straight from Google without any carrier or manufacturer-created delays. When Google rolled out Android 4.2 recently, Galaxy Nexus owners received an update notification on their device almost immediately.
Image Credit: Martin Shroder on Flickr
- “Flagship,” high-end phones will also generally receive updates, although they’ll be more delayed. If you purchased an HTC One X or Samsung Galaxy S3, you can be assured that it will probably receive a few updates – although they’ll likely be available months after they’re released for Nexus devices and perhaps even after the Android community has released a community-developed ROM for your device.
- Low-end Android smartphones – the kind you get for $0 without a contract – will likely never receive updates. The hardware on these low-end devices is already dated, and manufacturers won’t continue to support these.
Google, in their latest attempt to speed up Android updates, is giving select Android device manufacturers access to newer versions of Android before they’re released to the public. Android OEMs will have the opportunity to start working on udpates ahead of time. Whether this will help remains to be seen.
If your phone is running an old version of Android, there are some things you can do to make an old Android feel like new.
Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.
- Published 11/20/12