The Pixel Pinky Promise

In two announcements, Google has now publicly committed to seven years of software updates for its newest Pixel phones, while Chromebooks will get ten years of updates. The Chromebook promise is almost more impressive — Google says it will not support all features for devices older than those released in 2021, but a model released in, say, 2014 should continue to receive automatic updates through next year. Most important, that means ten years of security fixes. In a world where serious vulnerabilities are being increasingly exploited, knowing that a product will be patched for a decade is a big deal.

Colour me hopeful that this means a little more pressure on Apple to support its own devices even longer. The oldest devices which can run iOS and iPadOS 17 are from 2018, and the iMac Pro from December 2017 is the oldest to support Sonoma. But that is not a commitment — Apple has not promised a specific number of years of software updates as far as I know, only maintaining a specific definition for hardware obsolescence.

Even in software, its reputation for providing support well after a device was introduced is not wholly earned. Apple says “not all known security issues are addressed in previous versions” of operating systems. Nobody expects Apple to keep updating Mac OS X Jaguar, of course, but this precludes the company from continuing to issue security updates even on MacOS Ventura — and I cannot upgrade my iMac beyond that. Apple only stopped selling this computer in March 2019, though it continued refurbished sales well beyond that.

To be fair, we are a long way from the days in which you could expect near obsolescence in computers just a few years old. That is terrific. We have entered an era of mature operating systems in which longtime support is possible and necessary, given how much we all rely on these things.

I also question whether Google will actually fulfill this promise in an ongoing and meaningful way. The company has a unique reputation for announcing new things only to shut them down. A few months ago, it ended its Pixel Pass service, launched with the Pixel 6 in 2021, which was supposed to guarantee subscribers an upgrade to its 2023 phones. It cancelled the program shortly before those phones were even announced, meaning an automatic new device upgrade cannot happen, but the company is giving subscribers a $100 credit.

If Apple publicly committed to software support for a certain number of years, I would believe it, as it has been pretty consistent with its iPhones and iPads — though considerably less so with the Mac. But Google’s history makes me wonder if it has the ability to keep any promise for seven to ten years. If it does, it can change the perception that only Apple’s products receive major upgrades and security patches long after they have shipped. Of course, Apple always has the option of more comprehensively fulfilling its own reputation by making its own promises — and keeping them.