Why you're wrong about Android updates

note: I've seen a few discussions related to this topic. Let's hope this post "differentiates" enough from the others.

One of the biggest criticisms of Android is the slow or lack of updates to the newest versions of the OS. Many Galaxy S's were slow to get to Gingerbread, and word on the street is they won't be getting Ice Cream Sandwich at all. Some HTC's and Motorola's are supposedly receiving the ICS update, but that'll likely happen later rather than sooner. Beyond just receiving the updates, the popular phones from the popular manufacturers will undoubtedly be re-skinned to maintain a strictly Sensible, Blurry, or Wizzy look. But before you curse Samsung, it's important to understand the current situation.

We should not be upset that phone manufacturers change the stock Android experience. If everyone simply took the stock build and slapped the OS on whatever device they made, there would be little point to Android being open source. The ability to change the source is critical to the concept of Android and the Open Handset Alliance. If the Android OS were not modifiable, it would effectively be no different than iOS or Windows Phone 7. In addition, patfactorx makes the legitimate argument that stock Android phones would essentially be competing with Google's Nexus line, with the obvious disadvantage of inevitably slower updates. That's not a good business model for anyone.

One of the main reasons updates for Android phones are poor is because Google does not develop Android with manufacturers' abilities to update in mind. How can it? There are countless SKUs out there. For Apple and Microsoft, having baseline hardware allows their software developers to know what updates can and can't be done. And when an update is too advanced for a certain class of device, those are left in the dust. Google, on the other hand, can really only develop against the Nexus line.

There is also a problem of perception. Take the Kindle Fire. People aren't upset that it isn't getting the ICS update, when it's only been out for a few months. The claim is that they "forked" Android, took it along a new path away from Google. But you can make the same argument for any Android skin modification. (The term "skin" is actually insulting to manufacturers, as if the only differences they make are cosmetic and not at all functional). How different from the stock build a manufacturer makes Android is simply varying degrees of "forking" it. You can't praise the Fire while mocking the Galaxy S2.

Also worth mentioning is the unfriendly way Google releases Android versions. It seems most manufacturers, aside from the Nexus maker, find out about a new OS at the same time consumers do. Google keeps Android development internal, releases a "halo" device, then finally allows other manufacturers access to the code. At this point, with a flagship phone out there, any phone without the latest Android-du-jour will feel out of date.

So before we go bad mouthing the Samsungs and HTCs of the world about their "poor customer service", let's at least hold Google somewhat accountable for the current situation.