Without fail, every time a mobile operating system is upgraded, a generation or more of devices is left out of the cycle — leaving many owners frustrated that their perfectly-functioning gadget has already been deemed obsolete. On the other hand, it would cost manufacturers a plethora of resources to tailor and test new software for each and every product they have ever made, and at some point you’re trying to shoehorn software onto hardware that just isn’t powerful enough to run it smoothly.

So the question naturally arises: what are the criteria which determine a fair period of guaranteed upgrades for a product? Some people will answer with a particular length of time, be it one year, two years, or eighteen months, while others think that it should be adaptable based on the length of a contract signed, i.e. you are protected against obsolescence for the duration of your plan. You can also argue that device support should not be limited by a given time period, but rather determined by the capabilities of the device itself. In other words, as long as a device can capably run a new version of the operating system, it should be included in a company’s plans for legacy upgrades.

It’s important to evaluate this question from the perspective of both consumer and OEM. While someone who buys a product naturally wants to get free upgrades for life, at some point their purchase won’t benefit any longer from increasingly resource-hungry platforms. Plus, operating systems are a key selling point of the latest devices to hit the market; longer upgrade lifespans mean less incentives for people to trade up to newer hardware.

Unfortunately, there is no common upgrade criteria in the consumer electronics industry, nor even in the cellphone industry itself. Every manufacturer has its own method of determining a device’s upgradeability, with each one weighing a number of variables involving technical feasibility, public relations, and the bottom line. As owners of the HTC HD2 — which never got an official upgrade to Windows Phone 7 despite meeting most of its hardware requirements — will tell you, sometimes manufacturer motivations seem particularly transparent. There are always going to be folks who feel cheated by the decisions that are made, but the goal is usually to please as many past customers as possible.

What, then, seems like a fair standard for smartphones and tablets? Should they be covered for a set period of time? The length of the contract? A set number of major OS upgrades? Or do we need a new system in place, such as an independent arbiter to decide which devices are capable/worthy of receiving upgrades, and which are not? It’s a controversial question, and one that may not have just one right answer — if a right answer even exists. What do you think?

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