Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Larger Scope

Vlad Savov wrote an editorial on The Verge rightly criticising Samsung for their stubborn and crass lack of support in upgrading year-old devices.

Earlier today, Samsung revealed that it won’t update the Galaxy S, its most successful smartphone to date, to the latest version of Android. You might shrug and dismiss that as just more evidence of Android’s inherent fragmentation or the need for buyers to beware, but I take grave issue with it. This is a decision based not on technical constraints, as Samsung would have you believe, but on hubris.

The Galaxy S, as Savov notes, has sold nearly 20 million units worldwide. It was released just last year, and already Samsung can’t be bothered to upgrade it to Ice Cream Sandwich. Savov takes issue with this, noting that “Samsung considers its relationship with the consumer to be concluded the moment the sale is completed,” a decision that is counter to that of Google, Apple and Microsoft. Those three names all consider software to be upgradeable, for the most part, even after it’s sold. Apple and Microsoft charge to upgrade major versions of their desktop operating system, but not for their phones.

Android exists in a netherworld of somewhat murky distinction between Google’s role, the hardware vendor’s role, and the role of the carrier. All three have a say in whether a device gets upgraded. While it’s true that Google doesn’t really care one way or another if a user upgrades, the hardware company wants their custom software on it, and the carrier would prefer if you didn’t remove their preinstalled apps that nobody ever uses.

This post was picked up by Matthew Panzarino at The Next Web, who makes two very important observations. The first regards the nature of Android as a platform:

Samsung has no ecosystem or platform of its own. In fact, it can be argued that Android itself isn’t even a platform, it’s a collection of tools that allow companies to build a platform.

This is absolutely true, as far as the user’s perspective is concerned. They wouldn’t articulate it nearly this way, but as far as many are concerned, the OS on the phones of different manufacturers is distinct.

Panzarino also notes that this isn’t just Samsung:

[I]t’s systemic to Android as a whole. The makers of Android hardware see little benefit in updating even devices that are less than a year old. And, though I think it’s a punk move, I don’t blame them. There is little to no return to be had.

As I wrote a while back, Android hardware manufacturers aren’t using Android because it’s the best OS out there, but because it’s the best that they can get their hands on. It ticks all the boxes they care about: it allows customisation, it’s free to implement, and there’s the freedom for carriers to negotiate and meddle with it. Why would Samsung care deeply about an OS that they have no immediate allegiance to [1]?

Marco Arment noticed Panzarino’s post, and offered up his take:

Nobody in the Android ecosystem — not Google, not manufacturers of Android devices, and certainly not the gadget blogs that review and promote them — seems to care about long-term user satisfaction, even when “long-term” is as short as a two-year smartphone contract.

He also wonders if the Android user base feels any loyalty to the platform, or if they’ll reciprocate the uncaring and ostracising characteristics displayed by the hardware manufacturers. According to research published by GFK last month, 84% of iPhone users will buy another iPhone, but only 60% of Android customers plan on being loyal to their platform. I wonder if these numbers will be different now that a significant number of customers have been excluded from a major update.

All this comes as Chris Ziegler published a visualisation of most (but not all) of the Android phones HTC has released in the past year. He notes that, among other problems with having such a large quantity of phones:

[M]ore SKUs means more firmwares, and more versions of those firmwares. Each of those versions needs the care and feeding of an engineering team, and there are only so many engineers to go around. If a particular model is unpopular — which is more likely when you’re releasing a countless array of them — long-term support becomes an even greater risk.

To summarise: manufacturers make a lot of phone models which they are unwilling to upgrade or maintain. I simply cannot think of a reason why this is good for customers in the long term.

  1. While it’s true that Samsung and Google have their Nexus partnership, the rest of Samsung’s lineup isn’t tied to Android. If another OS were to come along that worked better for Samsung, they’d have few qualms about switching their lineup to it. [↑]