At today’s World Wide Developers’ Conference in San Francisco, Apple made it a point to take a very serious swipe at Android’s ability to keep devices current in terms of their firmware. In an accompanying chart, iOS’s installed base was shown to have been upgraded to version 5.0 or higher to the tune of 75% or more. Ice Cream Sandwich, on the other hand, was claimed to power just 7% of the Android installed base — working devices in consumers’ hands. It sounds like a pretty big disparity, but is the comparison even apt in the first place?

On the one hand, Apple has achieved something notable in its ability to keep legacy devices current. Whereas other manufacturers often weigh the cost to upgrade more highly than the benefit to end users — and, realistically, the predicted backlash and subsequent loss of sales — Apple seems to truly attempt to shoehorn OS upgrades in every older device that can properly handle in them. In that respect, it meets our criteria for judging the fairness of upgradability, and should be commended for being consumer-friendly.

However, Apple only needs to send a few products through testing, push out only a few device-specific upgrade builds, and most importantly, has the advantage of controlling both the hardware and the software elements of the ecosystem. Much like it does on the desktop, really, with MacOS and its PC lineup. The Android microcosm, by comparison, equates more closely to Windows on the desktop, with many manufacturers employing the platform of a single, software-focused corporation. Therefore, Android suffers from an inherent disadvantage in the upgrade comparison in that higher percentages require the participation of so many more players.

More specifically, Apple is comparing one device manufacturer supporting relatively few products to the dozens of OEMs and hundreds of phones and tablets which comprise Android — a larger overall vertical at this point, anyway. It would seem more appropriate for Apple to have compared its upgrade performance with that of other, individual manufacturers, or even the top five combined. But putting such differently-structured platforms head-to-head doesn’t seem like it delivers any real meaningful results.

That’s not to say there’s no truth in the conclusion Apple wants you to draw here: for the most part Android 4.0, a.k.a. Ice Cream Sandwich, has been a long time coming. It was exclusive to the Galaxy Nexus for what seemed like forever, and even now, over six months after that phone launched, we’re only just starting to see other ICS devices hit the market. The upgrade situation is equally as laborious, with perfectly-capable handsets forced to sit at the back of sometimes long lines.

What do you think, was Apple being fair in its shot at Android here? Or was the comparison structured just to make Apple look good, regardless of how appropriate it was?

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