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Why are Android updates always delayed?

Whether you buy an expensive or affordable Android smartphone, you'll have to wait for months to get the latest Android version

Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint<br />
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Google’s Android smartphone operating system (OS), despite dominating the global market with a 82.8% share (Q2, IDC 2015 report), is the most inconsistent in rolling out the latest software updates, according to a report (State of Mobile Operating System Adoption in India) released earlier this month by CyberMedia Research (CMR), a market research and consulting services firm.

In 2015, 64% of Android smartphones came with 4.4 (KitKat) preloaded, a three-year-old OS, according to the CMR report. And this at a time when 5.1 (Lollipop) was readily available. Some popular examples include the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium, the Samsung Galaxy S6, and the Xiaomi Mi4i, which have still not received 6.0 (Marshmallow), released in October.

Android’s shortcomings become even more stark when we look at its rivals.In comparison, 96% of Apple users updated iOS on their devices, including those owning iPhone 4S. Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS, which has a market share of just 2.6 % (IDC 2015 report) globally, fares better with 53% of Windows Phone users updating to newer versions of the OS.

We look at some of the reasons why Android is struggling to stay up to date.

Lack of ownership by phone manufacturers

What gives Windows Phone OS and iOS an edge over Android is that both Microsoft and Apple wield far more control over their software. In Android, however, there are a lot of OEMs (smartphone makers who take the software and put it on their phones) involved. Faisal Kawoosa, CMR’s lead analyst and general manager, telecoms and semitronics, says, “It is not entirely because of too many OEMs. I think the OEMs have to start taking ownership of a smartphone in entirety."

So far, Google alone shares the enthusiasm of Apple and Microsoft when it comes to its Nexus line-up of smartphones and tablets. All Nexus devices get the latest updates within a few weeks of their roll-out.

It is a logistics problem for OEMs who put custom user interfaces (UI) in their devices, as they have to run tests before making these updates compatible. They often take the easy way out by completely avoiding updates.

Google’s lack of direct control over OS

While Google has been pushing for security and performance updates for Android, the onus of rolling it out on devices lies with OEMs. In the past six years, Google rolled out 46 Android updates, including 10 “major" ones. Updates included bug fixes and performance improvements. In order to bring the latest update to users, Google came up with the Android One initiative two years ago with Micromax, Karbonn and Spice, but failed to get more OEMs on board.

Poor awareness among users

Sixty-two per cent of the Android users who were surveyed by CMR had never updated their smartphone. At some level, this shows that manufacturers have not been able to make Android users aware of the importance of updates. “Users aren’t aware about the benefits they will get from updating their devices, especially from the OS point of view. There has to be a clear messaging around an update as to how it would be beneficial. Otherwise, announcing that there is an important update with some fixes doesn’t seem to encourage an average user to go for it," says Kawoosa.

OEMs’ over-emphasis on hardware

The biggest problem is that OEMs and Google are not always on the same page when it comes to updates. Most OEMs tend to focus on the hardware of a smartphone, and less on the software. The number of processor cores, RAM capacity and screen resolutions are often the most talked-about features when a smartphone is launched. Even Samsung, the leading smartphone seller by market share in India and the world, shipped 77% of its smartphones to India in 2015 on older versions of Android, including Ice Cream Sandwich that is five-years-old.

Competition from unexpected quarters

Some Chinese smartphone makers such as Vivo and Xiaomi treat their custom UI as a stand-alone operating system. OnePlus uses custom ROMs, called Oxygen and Cyanogen. Yu uses Cyanogen. Then there are custom UIs or skins that offer more features than the original Google updates. For instance, Google’s app permissions feature, which was launched in October with Marshmallow, was available on several Lollipop-based custom UIs or custom ROMs.

“The higher the visible impact of the update, the better the acceptability. At the OS level, updates could be for several purposes, and may not necessarily result in a changed look and feel. While for custom ROM and UI, the update is more visible for an average user. To encourage users to update OS frequently, Google might have to think of packaging them in a way that they bring in some visible changes as well," points out Kawoosa.

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