We Should Be Getting More Than Two Years Software Support From Google

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Last week, Google started pushing Android 4.2 out to the AOSP. While we saw updates drop for the Galaxy Nexus, the release brought with it some somber news: Android 4.2 wouldn’t be forthcoming for the Nexus S or Motorola Xoom. Google’s Jean-Baptiste Queru found himself the bearer of bad news, and while he wasn’t able to offer a more definitive statement about the future of these devices, his message that “there is no support for 4.2 on Nexus S and Xoom. Those devices should continue using 4.1.2” sets the stage for the official abandonment of work on future software updates for the pair. Maybe Google is planning some last-minute change of fortunes for the Nexus S and Xoom, but it sure looks ready to close the book on those models. If that’s indeed the case, I’m none too happy about it, as two meager years of software support for Nexus-series hardware is simply unacceptable.

This kind of two-year shelf live isn’t unheard of from Google. Just look at the Nexus One, which launched in early 2010 and kept up with Android updates until the arrival of Ice Cream Sandwich late last year. With that in mind, we should have seen the writing on the wall for the Nexus S (and, to a lesser extend, the Xoom) but even having a little warning doesn’t make the bad news much easier to swallow. Shouldn’t we be demanding more in terms of software support?

How Did We Get In This Mess?

Smartphones really are unique in how shoddily they’re supported by their manufacturers and the companies behind the platforms they run. Our computers see their operating systems updated for years and years, but perhaps that’s not a good comparison, as the relationship between hardware and software companies there has little in common with how things work in the smartphone industry. Maybe game consoles would be a better match.

Microsoft first released the Xbox 360 in 2005. In the years that followed, the company churned-out some new hardware revisions, but that never stopped it from supporting older hardware. Last month, the platform’s latest major software release arrived, bringing, among other changes, a full-fledged web browser to the console. Users who bought their 360s a full seven years ago are no less able to upgrade to this new software than those who only picked one a few months back. Why the heck don’t we see anything remotely approaching that level of support with smartphones?

Well, with smartphones the hardware is always a moving target. Microsoft can keep writing code for the same seven-year-old machine, and until its follow-up console arrives, that’s the only model it needs to develop for. With Android, OEMs are constantly pushing the envelope with what their hardware is capable of, and Google finds its platform coming to more and more powerful devices as time goes on.

The problem arises when the desire to release a current product that takes advantage of the latest tech means breaking support for older models that just weren’t developed with the same concerns in mind; back when the Nexus S was developed, 512MB probably sounded like a perfectly adequate amount of RAM.

When I think about how quickly smartphone hardware has matured over the past several years, I’m tempted to even give Google a pass here. Maybe hitting the sort of brick walls that the Neuxs One and now the Nexus S face were inevitable given all the progress that was made over their life spans. What that doesn’t mean, though, is that Google (or any Android OEMs, for that matter) should count on getting away with abandoning hardware like that for much longer.

Is The Situation About To Get Better?

I could end up looking back on this in a year and feeling really stupid for saying so, but I think smartphone hardware advancements are really beginning to level-off. I think we’ll see a lot of improvements along the lines of power consumption and manufacturing changes that lead to reduced-cost components, but the core-count war can’t go on forever, 1080p is as good as screens ever need to get, and we’re never going to see handsets with a terabyte of flash memory.

That kind of prognostication carries a lot of implications, but the most important for our purposes today is that there just aren’t good excuses anymore for not future-proofing phone designs.

Considering all the upsets I’ve seen over the past couple years, when Androids didn’t get the updates their users were hoping they would, it seems like RAM and storage have been the two major stumbling blocks; either a phone doesn’t have enough memory to adequately run the latest system software, or its manufacturer partitioned its flash in such a way as to make an upgrade untenable.

We’re still not quite to the point where Android demands a full gigabyte of RAM, but those days are coming, make no mistake. Any manufacturer that cares about its users being able to upgrade their hardware in two, three years down the road is going to be putting 2GB of RAM in its phones today. With how inexpensive RAM is, and how crucially it’s been tied to phones being denied updates, it’s the single most important thing a manufacturer can pay attention to in order to ensure that its models are even capable of running the latest software two years from now.

Hardware is just part of the story, though. Honestly, that’s the easy answer. The harder part is making a case for why Google and the OEMs should continue to release updates for aging hardware, even when those devices are fully-capable of running the latest code.

As much as we might not like to consider it, there’s a very real financial component to all these decisions, and if most of your users have moved on to new hardware after a year or two, it could start getting very hard to justify software support continuing on for years and years. Like I said, this is the tricky part of the issue, and while I can think of a few possible resolutions, I’m not sure how much I like any of them.

Manufacturers could start charging for software updates. That would both give them an incentive to develop for previous years’ devices, as well as make it crystal clear just which hardware models are seeing the most demand for continued updates.

We could try to let capitalism generate the kind of change we’re looking for, but that’s going to be a glacially slow process. If one manufacturer leaves you hanging after a couple years you could always make your next purchase with someone else, but it’s still going to be another few years before you know whether or not that was a smart decision. Combine that with all the other, non-software-update-related reasons smartphone users jump from one manufacturer to another, and the signal-to-noise ratio is going to make it super difficult for your message to get through.

Is Google itself the answer? I’d like to say that by concentrating your smartphone-buying-dollar on Nexus devices, you’ll see the best chances that your hardware is supported for a good, long while, but I’m just not so sure anymore. I really want to believe that so long as the hardware is willing, Google’s going to do everything in its power to keep software coming for these models, but without more details on exactly what led to the decisions not to bring Android 4.2 to the Nexus S and Xoom, I can’t with great certainty.

All I know for today is that this situation absolutely needs to change. I believe it can, but will it? I’m not making any bets.

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bitsRead more about Stephen Schenck!