The real reason for the Android updates mess

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It's July 10, 2012. I'm scrolling through my Twitter feed when I get the news that the 4.1 Jelly Bean update rollout for the Galaxy Nexus had started. After pressing the Check Now button impatiently many times on my own Galaxy Nexus, jelly beans were finally mailed to me a few hours later, and I stuffed them in immediately. Happier than a kid at a candy bar, I felt like a new phase of my life had begun, and started checking out all the new features in the update. But not everyone's like me. In fact, very few people have the same attitude as me when it comes to updates.

However, for the next few months, Jelly Bean adoption is going to stay slim. Why? Because of the mess that is the Android update system which The Bohn Zone Dieter Bohn has done a good job explaining here. Also, ICS adoption barely reached 10% by the time 4.1 Jelly Bean came out. Journalists, tech enthusiasts and power users are very much aware about all of this, and it's no surprise why hardware manufacturers, Google and OEMs get blamed for it.

But one section of users never blames them, and that is the main reason why the situation with updates is so bad: average users. And that makes all the difference.

And everyone, including Google, is to blame for it.

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Investigating the problem at its heart

Companies do exactly what users demand. If there's no demand for something, it simply won't happen. That said, the biggest reason why Android OEMs and carriers falter when it comes to updates, is that there's almost no demand for updates.

Now that will come at a surprise to many of you, since we Verge readers are passionate about technology. But there are very few people like us. Most people dislike updates as much as we like them.

"What's an Ice Cream Sammich?"

I know many Android users, many of whom own Galaxy S2 devices, many with Galaxy Nexus phones, etc. Being a geek, if any discussion about phones pops up around me, I always try to draw it to software.

This is how most discussions happen:

Me: Hey dude, nice Galaxy S2 you have there. Are you on Ice Cream Sandwich yet?

Them: What? What's an Ice Cream Sammich?

Me: In other words, are you on Android 4.0 or 2.3?

Them: I have the Bell Canada one, is that what you're talking about?

Me: Oh okay, seems like you didn't update it. Wow - see there, you have an update notification on your screen. Click yes! You'll get smoother performance, better apps, better experience, and so much more!

Them: What's the use? Nah, I'll pass. (declines update)

That's not just one example. There have been countless such discussions involving me, and it end that way all the time. I'm pretty sure you, as a Verge reader, have had similar discussions too. Some people even go to the extent of downgrading to gingerbread from ICS. And it's annoying. Very annoying.

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Annoying, because these people hold Android back as a platform.

They are the reason why there are no good apps for Android, because app developers simply don't care to push out quality apps due to most users being stuck on Gingerbread and older versions.

If you disagree with me, go out and ask people if they know what Android 4.0 or 4.1 is. Even Android users won't be able to answer it, which is the problem. Hell, go out and ask people if they know the company behind Android, and surprisingly, many people will answer "Samsung", "HTC", "Verizon" or something instead of Google. And, to top it all, there are people who opt to downgrade to Gingerbread from ICS just because "the camera takes a second longer to open".

The problem becomes worse

When users just aren't willing to update, even when an update for their phone is available, OEMs and carriers feel like their efforts were a waste. As such, they drop the ball on future updates, because they know most users aren't going to update anyway. Now, life becomes 10 times harder for us app developers, who are forced to support ageing old versions of the operating system.

If there was demand, and if users had stood up for updates, we wouldn't have the mess we have today. Today, very few people actually stand up and say to their manufacturer/carrier: "You're doing it wrong! Give us the update we deserve!". The problem is, all of them belong to the minority. If everyone had just expressed negativity over it, the situation would have been much better.

How Apple doesn't have this problem

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Hype, and publicity, is the answer.

Every time a new iOS version is announced, mainstream media is sure to report about it far and wide. Newspapers, TV channels, blogs, etc all carry the glad tidings and convey it where they matter. In the end of the day, average users get to know that a new version of iOS has been released, and that they are expected to update. Very very few people in the iOS camp don't care about new updates, unlike the situation in the Android camp.

Apple's products generate a lot of hype and media attention. If Google wants users to be excited for future Android releases, they need to do something to make users genuinely interested in the new release.

And that's not an easy thing to do.

What Google, manufacturers, carriers and users should do

To Google: The PDK is a good step forward, but it isn't solving the root problem. The next time you announce an Android release, GENERATE HYPE before the announcement. Get your media partners line up for the news. Advertise everything about your new release. Tease users. Do something.

Until users start caring, "Project Butter" and "Google Now" means nothing in reality. The vast majority still thinks the biggest feature in ICS was Face Unlock. Google, flex your advertising muscle and get users interested in the future of your platform! Use your brand image where it matters!

You were the guys who revolutionized browser updates with Chrome, so why not improve the situation over at Andy Rubin's camp?

To manufacturers: Build a good reputation for your users. Tell users that the magic code running on your phones comes from the Mountain View Chocolate Factory. Reduce skinning to speed up updates. Don't mess with Matias Duarte's masterpiece. And, for the love of all things good, listen to power users when we complain about updates.

Also, provide something to your users which would make them LIKE the update. Don't just repeat the same old UI over and over. This is exactly how NOT to do an update, as in the case of the Galaxy S2:

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(ICS on the left, Gingerbread on the right, via GSMarena)

Oh, and keep the damn bootloader unlocked. Vlad explains why.

To carriers: Become dumb pipes. Seriously. Software isn't something you should mess around with. Instead of spending money on exclusive deals with manufacturers and branding phones as yours instead of Samsung's or Google's, for example, just save that money. Also, don't put a roadblock to innovation.

To non-techie users: Install the update when you get a notification. And when you don't get a notification, blame your carrier for it, in one effective way: Either tweet about it, call them up, leave a message on their Facebook page, or leave a suggestion on their website. Just don't sit around happily as if everything's perfectly fine!

The updates problem is nowhere near resolution right now. That might change, but for now, we all will have to deal with the consequences.

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