Being an Android device manufacturer has to be one of the most thankless jobs in the world. Each day, you go into your lab and perform minor engineering miracles to fit more power, bigger batteries, and better cameras into less space. And each day the price and value of your product diminishes. You give people 12 megapixels, they ask for 16, you give them 4GB of RAM, they ask why it's not 6GB. Even if you get every spec perfected and you somehow manage to eke out a meager profit on the hardware, you then have to spend whatever's left to support the device with software updates years down the line.
A single OS update for a single phone can cost hundreds of thousands
I've been one of the many people dissatisfied with the state of Android software updates, however I can't in good conscience direct my wrath at the people manufacturing the devices. Price and spec competition is so intense right now that there's literally no option to disengage: everyone's been sucked into the whirlpool of razor-thin profit margins, and nobody can afford the luxury of dedicating too many resources to after-sales care. And hey, do you know how much an Android OS update actually costs to roll out for just a single phone model? Several hundred thousand dollars, according to the latest Bloomberg report.
The question that's been bugging me lately is, if we value Android updates as highly as we say we do, why don't we pay for them? The situation can't be fixed by manufacturers — most of them are barely breaking even — or by Google, which is doing its best to improve things but ultimately relies on carriers and device makers to get the job done. Carriers will most certainly not be the solution, given how they presently constitute most of the problem (just ask AT&T Galaxy S6 owners) — so like it or not, the best chance for substantial change comes from us, the users.
What I'm proposing is a simple crowdfunding operation. Say you really want HTC to deliver Android Marshmallow to your 2013 One max phablet. HTC can set up a Kickstarter that identifies the cost required to make that update rollout feasible, and then it's up to you and your fellow One max owners to gather the funds for that service. This is the thing that goes unappreciated: an operating system update for smartphones, by virtue of all the carrier approvals required on a global scale, is actually a major undertaking and a real service.
It's a problem of economics, not technology
Over the many years I've been covering Android, one of the saddest themes has been the number of devices capable of running the latest OS version but not being updated to it. Manufacturers have told me repeatedly that they would like to update every phone, but too many of the prematurely abandoned models simply don't have the user base to make that financially viable. Maybe the same will be true if we tried to crowdfund updates. Maybe not. But why not try?
We fund Kickstarter projects for the creation of comic books, video games, films, music, and a variety of weird and wonderful smartphones. We shouldn't be reluctant to do the same for software updates that we anticipate will bring value to our lives and extend the usefulness of our devices.