2 big points critics always miss about Android upgrades

Can you feel it in the air? It's that time of year again -- time for massive misinformation spread in the name of marketing.

Android vs iOS Upgrades

You guessed it: I'm talking about the annual "Android upgrades are awful" flare-up brought to us by Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference. The Android upgrade discussion is always floating around out there, but our pals on the other end of the smartphone spectrum seem to enjoy fueling the fire with a highly combustible blend of misleading data and carefully crafted exaggeration.

Now, I'm not going to sit here and tell you that Android upgrades are a great experience across the board. They aren't. Quite frankly, for a lot of users, they leave something to be desired.

But there are a couple of important points critics always gloss over -- points that make all the difference in the world.

Time for a quick reality check:

Point #1: If you want timely OS upgrades on Android, you can have 'em; you just have to choose a phone that provides that experience.

Android Diversity

To get into this first point, we need to back up for a minute. At a foundational level, Android and iOS are drastically different beasts: Android is an open source operating system, which means anyone can put it on any type of device and modify it as they wish. As a result, there's an enormous array of Android devices out there that vary wildly from each other, both in form and in the type of software experience they provide.

So, yes, upgrades in that environment -- with countless models made by a wide range of manufacturers -- are inherently going to be different than upgrades within Apple's small and tightly controlled world, where a single manufacturer controls a few near-identical devices.

That's why it's disingenuous to talk about the effectiveness of Android upgrades in a grand collective sense, where cheap off-brand tablets and junky low-end phones from three years ago are measured equally with current flagship devices. Android may be the foundation of a large number of products, but it's just that -- a foundation. Not the product itself. The type of experience you get is determined by each manufacturer, and upgrades are no exception.

Now, it's perfectly fair and accurate to criticize certain manufacturers of Android-based products for doing a poor job at providing timely ongoing upgrades to their devices (that's precisely what I do in my Android upgrade report cards, as a matter of fact). Samsung tends to be poky and incommunicative about its upgrade progress. Sony tends to be slow as molasses at getting upgrades out to its customers. If you buy an LG phone, you're taking a gamble as to if or when you'll ever get the next version of Android. Those are all fair things to say.

But making educated and specific statements is very different from making a blanket declaration like: "If you use Android, you won't get upgrades." Because the truth is that Android presents you with a lot of choices, and if quick and regular upgrades are important to you, you most certainly can get them; you just have to choose a phone that provides that type of experience.

Android Upgrades - KitKat

The most obvious choice is one of Google's Nexus devices, which are the closest equivalent to Apple's iPhone within the Android universe. They run unmodified versions of Google's base Android software and receive OS updates directly from Google as the updates are released. (Rumors suggest Google may soon replace the Nexus line with an expanded brand called "Android Silver," but it seems logical that such an effort would continue the "pure" software approach and instant upgrade focus established by the Nexus program.)

Google also offers a selection of Google Play Experience devices, which are special versions of manufacturers' hardware where the software is controlled by Google and OS updates are pushed out in a similarly speedy manner.

Beyond those options, a couple of manufacturers are stepping up to the plate and making fast and reliable upgrades a priority for their own Android-based devices. Motorola, most notably, has been delivering OS updates almost instantly to its flagship Moto X phone and with impressive speed to its lower-end Moto G as well (in addition to providing frequent improvements and expansions to its own add-on software elements). While not quite at Moto's level, HTC has also done a commendable job at providing timely ongoing support to its current flagship phones.

The bottom line: A great upgrade experience absolutely is available within the Android umbrella -- as are many other types of experiences. It's simply up to you to choose what type of experience you want to have.

Point #2: What constitutes an "upgrade" on Android isn't necessarily the same as on iOS.

Aside from the issue of upgrade delivery is the notion of what's actually considered an "upgrade" on Android as opposed to on iOS. Turns out there are some pretty significant differences.

Android Unbundled

Apple tends to stick to the traditional approach of updating its software in giant chunks a couple times a year -- and consequently, its idea of an "upgrade" revolves around those major releases. Google, on the other hand, has actually unbundled most of its key system components from the core OS so it can update them far more frequently, bit by bit (and in a way that reaches all users at the same time, regardless of what type of device they have).

Services ranging from the system keyboard to the search/voice control app, Web browser, messaging and email apps, and calendar are all maintained via Google's Play Store, which means they can be updated with a moment's notice just like any regular app. Even behind-the-scenes components like Google's Play Services are now updated frequently in this a-la-carte manner, allowing significant new functionality to be rolled out universally throughout the year and independent of formal OS releases.

As I wrote when addressing this very same issue after Apple's adjective-laden self-love fest of 2013 (yup -- déjà vu all over again):

Think about it this way: Over the last month alone, this decentralized system has provided Android users -- anyone with a device running software from 2011 or later -- with a refreshed Gmail app, a rewritten music app, an on-demand music streaming service, a new universal messaging system, a new series of context-sensitive Google Now commands, a new and improved Google Maps, a new version of Google+ with advanced and automated photo manipulation tools, a new universal gaming center, an updated Calendar app, and an updated system keyboard. That's enough stuff to amount to a major update in Appleland -- and with Android, it happened outside of any such parameters.

These sorts of a la carte updates happen all the time -- and they reach all Android devices -- even though they aren't considered "upgrades" in the traditional sense. Consequently, the traditional OS upgrade has become increasingly less pivotal to the Android experience over time.

Apple's OS upgrades, it's also worth noting, often deliver a limited range of their advertised features to many devices. iOS 6, for instance, came to the iPhone 4 without key features like Siri, panoramic photos, turn-by-turn navigation, and Maps Flyover. With iOS 7, meanwhile, neither the iPhone 4 nor 4S got marquee additions like AirDrop and in-camera filters. These are all nuances that blanket statements and context-free pie charts don't convey.

(As a side note, by the way, Apple's claim that "over a third" of Android users are using a version of the OS "from four years ago" -- made during this week's WWDC keynote -- is just flat-out wrong. According to Google's May 1st platform version breakdown, 16 percent of devices are still running Android 2.3, Gingerbread, which came out just shy of three-and-a-half years ago. And only 1 percent of devices still run any version older than that.)

Android Power Twitter

So all considered, what's the take-home message here? Simple: This stuff isn't nearly as black and white as many people paint it to be. iOS and Android upgrades are apples and oranges, so to speak, and each platform's approach has its own set of pros and cons. Neither setup is perfect, but both can be perfectly manageable -- especially once you understand what you're dealing with.

That may not be a pithy, marketing-friendly message, but it's the truth.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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