Tuesday, 19 September 2017
News Tech

The massive Android upgrade you probably didn’t notice


Do me a quick favor, wouldja? Read over this list of smartphone software improvements — using your best jeans-clad, adjective-abusing Apple-exec-at-a-keynote voice in your head — and tell me if it sounds like a significant upgrade.

Specifically, think about if it sounds like the sort of thing that’d result in awkwardly long applause breaks as the presenter emphatically wraps up each point:

This summer’s groundbreaking upgrade includes fresh features, performance enhancements and interface improvements for more than 40 core parts of your smartphone experience.

Some of the significant changes we’ve rolled out to every user around the world within weeks of their release:

You know the deal by now, right? Unless you have one of Google’s own Pixel or Nexus devices, Android’s actual OS upgrades are a bit of a mess. Most manufacturers take their good sweet time to roll out those sorts of updates — because, plain and simple, they have no real motivation to make post-sales software support a priority.

It’s an undeniable truth we’ve seen reinforced year after year. It sucks, but it’s an inevitable side effect of Android’s open-source model (without which, of course, Android arguably wouldn’t have become the force it is today, and we wouldn’t even be here discussing this at all right now — see the circle?).

But that being said, it’s critical to remember what an “OS update” actually entails — and why the term doesn’t mean the same thing on iOS as it does on Android. As a result of the nature of its platform, Google has been taking significant steps to transform what upgrades represent on Android — and how they’re able to reach us.

Part of that effort includes providing increasingly holistic options for those of us who do want the guarantee of fast and reliable ongoing OS upgrades for our devices. Google’s own Nexus and now Pixel phones are actually quite comparable to the iPhone in that sense; the main difference is that they exist within a broader ecosystem of choices instead of serving as the ecosystem’s sole members.

The other part revolves around making OS updates themselves less all-important. That’s why Google has little by little pulled so many pieces out of the operating system and started updating them directly via the Play Store, in an arrangement that requires no middleman and reaches every single user at almost the same time.

At this point, pretty much every non-foundational piece of Android exists in this manner — everything from the front-facing system-like apps for email, calendar, messaging, maps, photos, keyboard and so forth to the behind-the-scenes utilities like Google Play Services, which powers all sorts of location-, privacy- and security-related elements on Android devices (including the newly launched Google Play Protect system I alluded to in the list above).

Most of those elements are updated on a near-monthly basis. I looked at 40 of the most significant system-like elements in the Play Store — all of which would still be considered part of the actual operating system on iOS — and found all but nine of them had been updated within the past 30 days of this writing. All but five had been updated within the past two months, meanwhile, and all but two had been updated within the past three months.

As I’ve said before — and as our little exercise above demonstrates — the result of this is that any random month could see a level of system-like updates for Android that’s comparable to a major OS upgrade on other mobile platforms. Google just does it quietly and, perhaps at its own expense in terms of public perception, rarely draws attention to the big picture of what’s happening and how all the pieces add up.

So is all of this to say that the OS upgrades themselves no longer matter? Not at all. They most certainly do — and nothing we’ve said here excuses manufacturers’ poor performance at providing those upgrades to users. Android OS upgrades contain significant foundational improvements to the operating system and its core UI, and those are areas that can’t be easily addressed with standalone elements. (That’s why I continue to analyze and discuss them so often.)

But considered as a whole, the ongoing updates to individual system pieces in between those clustered releases are equally consequential — and yet they’re almost always overlooked as part of the Android upgrade discussion.

Perspective matters. No matter how you feel about the state of Android, thinking about only half the story gives you an incomplete picture of what’s actually happening.

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