Okay, Android, I give up

I’ll put the punchline up front: even on Project Fi, which is Google’s own cellular network, and which only allows for Google’s own Nexus phones, Google still cannot keep Android up-to-date. This is literally their best-case scenario, and they still can’t make it work. Since I care about security, I’m returning full-time to iOS, and will encourage others to do so as well. If you want to know why, read on.

I want to make clear, right up front, that I am absolutely not an iOS apologist. I couldn’t wait for the first Android phones to come out, and I bought a Motorola Droid on launch day. I was excited about its better multitasking, about the keyboard, about the better integration with Google services, about the fact that I could use Java instead of Objective-C, about the much more open platform that wouldn’t restrict what I wanted to do. I was very sincerely excited.

But neither the hardware nor the software were quite ready at the time. I went through three Droids, suffering one (thankfully warranty-covered) hardware failure after another. After an initially promising update cycle (the Droid was upgraded to what I believe was Android 2.1 very quickly), I began to see that Google was having issues getting new versions of Android out on a sane schedule. So, after a couple of years of living on the Android train, I hopped off and grabbed an iPhone.

That didn’t mean I gave up on Android. If anything, I was pretty confident that Android, not iOS, would be the winner in the end anyway. Google would figure things out — and it wasn’t even just Google, after all, but a huge chunk of the telecom industry, all of whom had a vested interest in keeping Apple from dominating, helping them out. We’d seen this play out already with Microsoft and the PC makers versus Apple in the 90s; we knew how it would end, that Android would close the gaps and take over the industry. It was just a matter of time while Google got their operation running smoothly.

While that’s obviously not what happened, both Android software and hardware did markedly improve. There were even a lot of things that Android got first that were genuine usability wins: instant replies from notifications, assistants (Google Now), turn-by-turn directions, cross-application communication, automatic app updates, and more. I ended up buying a Nexus 7 as a tablet, and found that, at least as a developer, it fit my needs a lot better than an iPad ever did.

There was, however, one caveat: Android’s security story. Because Google couldn’t get updates out to its phones on a sane schedule, most Android phones had long-running unpatched security issues. If there’s one thing I think we’ve learned about security over the last few years, it’s that a team that patches early and often is going to be vastly better protected than one that doesn’t. This didn’t bother me too much on my Nexus 7 — Google was better about pushing out updates for its tablets than its phones, and at any rate, side-loading the OS didn’t pose any major problems for me on a non-mission-critical tablet — but it kept me from returning to Android phones.

So when Project Fi was released, I signed up immediately. I figured I could finally, finally have my cake and eat it, too: Google generally kept Nexus devices up-to-date, and the Fi pricing model seemed like a huge improvement to me over what I’d been forced to do on the major carriers. What wasn’t to love? I could go back to Android and bid Verizon adieu at the same moment, a great double-win.

That is emphatically not what happened. First, security updates were slow to come out: whereas Apple virtually always has security issues patched well ahead of any disclosure window, Google seemed to struggle. When Stagefright came out, I had to wait, just like everyone else, for my patch. And when that patch happened, it was woefully incomplete, so then I got to wait again for a patch to the patch. And then when Android M shipped a month ago, Google left Nexus 6 users — all of whom own a phone that is just barely over a year old at this point — running Android 5.1.1. Yes, you can get M on Project Fi, but you have to side-load (which their support representatives are loudly and actively discouraging in their support forums), or you have to buy a new phone — the exact situation that exists on other carriers, and the exact situation I was trying to avoid.

This is ridiculous. Apple manages to push out updates to all carriers on the same day. Microsoft, which generally brings a vaguely Scooby Doo-like quality of competition to the smartphone landscape, manages to get updates out to all Lumia devices within at most a few days of each other, and also has a very simple system in which any Windows Phone user can opt-in to get Windows Update-style updates ahead of general availability. Meanwhile, on its own cell network, Google has…side-loading, which it’s discouraging.

This just shouldn’t be that hard. And yet, for Google, it clearly is.

So I give up. Apple can keep their products up-to-date across dozens of carriers; Google can’t even keep their own products up-to-date on their own cellular network. If they can’t even make that work, then I throw in the towel.

I suppose it’s possible that my next phone won’t run iOS, but the one thing I can guarantee you is that it’s not going to run Android.

Originally published at bitquabit.com on November 13, 2015.

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