We’ve looked at the reasons why your Android phone probably isn’t getting updates before, and one of the reasons why is because each carrier must subject each update to a testing process before releasing it — if they ever release it.

This causes Android updates trickle out carrier-by-carrier. But updates for Apple’s iPhone are available everywhere when they’re released — so what’s going on?

Carriers Control Most Android Phones

Android devices actually follow the established cell phone model. You get a phone from your carrier on-contract. That carrier has customized that phone, adding their own branding and software (often considered bloatware) to it. The phone itself may be a unique model only available on your carrier. Carriers have traditionally loved unique phone models — witness the way the original Samsung Galaxy S split into the Samsung Vibrant, Samsung Fascinate, Samsung Mesmerize, and so on. Each phone was a slightly different Galaxy S (or even the same), but had a different name so each carrier could have their own unique phone.

Your carrier exercises control over your device even after you buy it, preventing it from working on other cellular networks (by locking it to their network). They are the ones in control of the phone and the software it comes with, and they are the ones in charge of approving and rolling out updates. You generally can’t get these updates from the manufacturer directly — only from the carrier.

When a new version of Android is released, the device manufacturer has to take it and adapt their existing customizations to it. They also have to make it work on all their phones, including the carrier-specific variants. This is why many manufacturers haven’t bothered updating many less-popular or older phones.

The manufacturer then has to send out the updates to every carrier. It’s each carrier’s job to test all the different updates for all their different smartphones, and they may take many months to do so. They may even decline to do the work and never release the update.

Apple Controls the iPhone

Love it or hate it, Apple used the popularity of their iPhone to upset this established model. Apple informed carriers (AT&T at first) that they were in charge of the phone. There was just a single iPhone, not an iPhone variant for every carrier. Carriers weren’t allowed to install their own software or brand it with their logos. They weren’t put in charge of updates — iPhone updates come from Apple, not from the carriers.

While there are many Android phones and variants of Android phones, there’s just one iPhone — there’s no iPhone Captivate, iPhone Fascinate, or iPhone Mesmerize.

Users want the iPhone, so carriers want to offer it. Apple uses this as leverage to exert their power over carriers and insist on this model, and carriers can’t hold back iPhone updates for the same reason they can’t ship iPhones filled with bloatware or with carrier logos stamped across their fronts.

Carriers may want to block iPhone updates but be unable to. An issue with iOS 6.1 resulted in Vodafone UK and 3 Austria asking their customers to not update to iOS 6.1 before the issue was fixed. The carriers couldn’t block the updates, as that wasn’t in their control — they could only ask their users nicely.

So Why Are Carriers Holding Back Updates?

It’s undoubtedly easier for carriers to test iPhone updates and inform Apple of any problems than it is for the carriers to test updates for a wide swath of different Android phones, some of which only exist on that carrier.

However, that isn’t the only reason carriers hold back updates:

  • Updates Involve Work: When Samsung hands over a new build of Android for one of its phones, carriers have to do their own work to customize the phone. They’ll need to add their own branding and apps (bloatware) to the devices, which takes additional work.
  • Carriers Can Delay Updates: Carriers can get away with putting this work off or failing to do it.  They have the ability to delay update rollouts for months if they feel like it, dragging their feet. Apple will release iPhone updates with or without them.
  • Planned Obsolescence: Carriers don’t really want to upgrade a years-old smartphone and have it feel like new. As businesses looking to sell you a new phone and get you to renew your contract, it’s in their interest to make the new phones look attractive — and timely updates for old phones just cost additional money and make new products less tempting. Carriers have an incentive not to update their phones.

What Exactly Needs to Be Tested?

The carrier will need to test the phone’s software, particularly because that software has likely been customized by the carrier. They will need to ensure all their included apps work properly and that the phone’s specific software — which has likely had less testing than the iPhone’s software, which is the same worldwide — works properly.

Carriers also want to test the device to make sure it works properly on their network. They’ll want to ensure it doesn’t place additional load on the network, lead to additional dropped calls, or cause other problems.

Carriers Also Control Windows Phone

We’ve focused on Android here, but Windows Phone is in the same boat. Updates for Windows Phone devices must be approved by every carrier. When it was originally released,  Microsoft created an official website where users could track Windows Phone 7 updates on a per-carrier basis to see which carriers worldwide were failing to issue updates or issuing them too slowly.

However, Microsoft eventually took their “Where’s My Phone Update?” website down — perhaps because it annoyed carriers too much. Microsoft no longer provides information about the status of updates. Updates for Windows Phone 8 devices must still be approved by carriers before they roll out to Windows Phone devices.

Avoiding the Carriers

The only way to avoid the carrier control on non-iPhone phones is by going around them, purchasing a device directly from the phone’s manufacturer. For example, Google’s Nexus 4 will receive updates from Google without any carrier getting involved. Users can also purchase other unlocked, off-contract devices and receive updates without carrier involvement — assuming the manufacturer releases those updates.

You can also go off the beaten path, unlocking your phone’s boot loader and installing a custom ROM like Cyanogenmod to get an updated version of Android, whether your carrier wants you to or not.

So why exactly do carriers hold back updates for Android phones, but not for Apple’s iPhone? Well, because they can get away with it — Apple can insist that they’re in charge of updates and carriers have to play ball if they want the iPhone. Other phone platforms provide a way for carriers to continue providing the locked-down, customized phones they love so much and continue exercising their control over them.

Image Credit: Scott Schiller on Flickr, Jon Fingas on Flickr, Dru Kelly on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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