Software Support on Phones is Broken…And Needs to be Fixed
The answer lies somewhere in between what Apple and Google are doing…and neither company is doing enough
It is a running joke with my friends and family that I own a new phone every month. It is a funny joke, because like all good jokes it is rooted in a bit of truth. Confession: I have owned over 100 different phones in a span of 15 years. I can’t give a proper explanation as to why I enjoy trying new tech other than I am genuinely interested in the product and want to try everything at least once. I have owned phones from almost every manufacturer that you can think of that is sold here in the United States, I even tried the Nextbit Robin when it was being crowdfunded. The point is, I am not the typical smartphone buyer or what you would call a normal person in this regard. The fact that I have owned my LG V60 for 4 months now is almost a miracle.
Normal people don’t cycle through phones like they’re candy bars. No, normal people keep their phones for a couple of years until they slow down or break and need to be replaced. Some people upgrade once a year when the new model iPhone or Android model of choice is released. How long people keep their devices has always interested me since I frequently see people using phones from a few years ago. Back in August, Samsung announced that moving forward all of its phones would support 3 generations of operating system updates. This was an improvement over what Samsung had committed to before, but falls short of how long Apple supports its phones. So the question to me becomes, how long should our favorite phone makers support our phones?
Apple’s Gold Standard
The company that supports its phones the longest is definitely Apple. Apple currently supports iPhones for 5 operating system updates. This is by far the longest of any smartphone maker. Currently, the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus which were released in 2015 are updated to the latest version of iOS. The Samsung Galaxy S6, which was released in the same year, stopped receiving updates in 2018 by comparison. While this seems like such a wide disparity, there is an explanation as to why Apple can accomplish this.
Apple has what is called vertical integration in the manufacturing process of their iPhones. What this means is that Apple controls all aspects of the process that has to be taken into account when updating a phone’s software. Apple makes the phone hardware, they make the CPU and also makes the software that the phone runs on. All of these factors give Apple the control to push out updates seamlessly without extra lines of communication that Android manufacturers have to go through.
For Android manufacturers like Samsung and OnePlus the process is a bit more detailed. Google releases the update, which then gets to the phone manufacturer to add their own features and apps, which then either pushes to the end-user if they are using an unlocked version of the phone or to the cellular carrier so that they can add their own optimizations as well. This is where most Android updates fall by the wayside and where Apple has differentiated itself.
Carriers have many priorities for their customers, and it seems that long term software support of their phones is not high on that list. Apple knew that after the breakout success of the first iPhone that it was in a position of power to have full control over the customer experience of the iPhone. As such, the company made sure that the carriers had no control over when software updates were pushed out to iPhones. What this results in is an iPhone that is supported for 5 years of operating system upgrades. And while this is impressive, this is only half the battle. Usability upgrades over time need to be taken into account as well.
The Chromebook Model
Chromebooks, laptops running Google’s desktop operating system Chrome OS, have been in the market for a decade. And despite some of their flaws, one thing that Chromebooks have seemed to handle well is software updates. Updates on Chrome OS devices are handled seamlessly in the background and done regularly. There is also a level of transparency with Chromebooks where it is easy to see when the device will no longer receive software support. Additionally, whenever there is a critical bug it is generally patched within a day or two and pushed to all devices without all of the steps of Android devices.
What Chromebook updates can show us is that there is a better way to support devices and give proper value to the end-user. Because of the timetable that is set for Chromebooks to be updated, Google has a timeline of how long its customers are likely to own their laptops for and because of this, the focus becomes on optimizing the experience during the lifespan of the device. This is why many Chromebook owners will say that their Chromebook functions better a year or two after purchase than when they first bought it. This is a proper support model designed to optimize the experience of ownership to make the user want to stick with the brand.
Most Chromebooks these days offer 7–8 years of update support. The battery degradation of smartphones alone would not allow for such a long update period. However, a unified 4–5 year software update cadence for all smartphones would be a solution that holds companies accountable to ensure a better long-term quality of life for their phones. These updates would be focused on usability in addition to user interface changes, helping to relieve the myth of a software update making a phone slow.
The 4 Year Plan
If you consider the current design cycle of smartphones, it seems that a major overhaul in design and functionality comes around about once every 4 years. The iPhone 6 and iPhone 8 are 4 years apart and feel like minor evolutions of the same product. The iPhone X, however, was a major departure in aesthetics and function. For Samsung, the Galaxy S6 thru S9 largely felt like the same phone. The Galaxy S10 revamped the camera system and changed the overall look of the device while introducing a third option in the Galaxy S10e. Ditto for Google’s Pixel line where the first three Pixel devices felt like variations of the same phone until the Pixel 4 implemented a change in direction.
Because of this cycle of minimal change, and the increasing time of average smartphone ownership (which is more than 2 years and only going up) a potential problem is posed for long-term users of gadgets. If smartphone owners look to keep their phones for 3 or 4 years, which seems likely, then the way that software updates and device maintenance happen across the board is in need of a better experience. In the case of certain manufacturers like TCL, Motorola, and some OnePlus phones there is only one major software update that is committed to. More importantly, countless Android phones constantly are behind on security patch updates especially once they are a year old and the manufacturer has moved on to their new phones as a point of focus.
There ultimately needs to be a balance of supporting older devices while still making a compelling product that sells well year after year. Think of the reputations of the companies that were just mentioned. A quick browse through Reddit Android forums will show you a large number of people that will not buy another LG phone for instance because of a lack of long-term software support. Conversely, Pixel and iPhone owners are dedicated to their phones because of the peace of mind that comes with longer-term support.
The hidden reality of longer support cycles for phones is that there is a buy-in that is cultivated making the user more likely to use other products that the phone manufacturer makes. Consider the success of Apple Music. iPhone users love their phones, and when Apple debuted a new music streaming platform many of the users ditched Spotify and Google Play Music for it because there was brand equity between Apple and its users. The same has happened for Google, in ensuring that Pixel users are committed to its services like YouTube Premium, Gmail, and Google Search despite there being countless alternatives that people could use.
So where does this leave us? The fundamentals of long-term smartphone ownership are broken. The iPhone is supported long-term but new features are not always added to older phones. Google has enabled features to be added to older phones but without longer-term security updates that feel short of the mark as well. In the end, software support should reflect the way that users keep their phones. In the original days of smartphones, a yearly upgrade was more common. This made a lack of long term updating more excusable. But now as the demands have changed the way our devices are supported must be changed with it. This means a 4-year update cycle that adds support for new software features regularly. As innovation has slowed from being a yearly drastic change to a nuanced yearly change, the way that companies handle their older devices needs to improve. It is a game of brand equity today, and year over year iteration no longer cuts it.
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