Android Orphans: Visualising A Sad History Of Support

Michael DeGusta must be a madman, because he's gone and documented the sad, sad history of neglected Android phones on his blog, theunderstatement. Then he went and made a chart to help visualise it all. Once you are able to take it all in, you can't help but be full of sad...

The announcement that Nexus One users won't be getting upgraded to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich led some to justifiably question Google's support of their devices. I look at it a little differently: Nexus One owners are lucky. I've been researching the history of OS updates on Android phones and Nexus One users have fared much, much better than most Android buyers.

I went back and found every Android phone shipped in the United States(1) up through the middle of last year. I then tracked down every update that was released for each device — be it a major OS upgrade or a minor support patch — as well as prices and release and discontinuation dates. I compared these dates and versions to the currently shipping version of Android at the time. The resulting picture isn't pretty — well, not for Android users:

Other than the original G1 and MyTouch, virtually all of the millions of phones represented by this chart are still under contract today. If you thought that entitled you to some support, think again:

• 7 of the 18 Android phones never ran a current version of the OS. • 12 of 18 only ran a current version of the OS for a matter of weeks or less. • 10 of 18 were at least two major versions behind well within their 24-month contract period. • 11 of 18 stopped getting any support updates less than a year after release. • 13 of 18 stopped getting any support updates before they even stopped selling the device or very shortly thereafter. • 15 of 18 don't run Gingerbread, which shipped in December 2010. In a few weeks, when Ice Cream Sandwich comes out, every device on here will be another major version behind. • At least 16 of 18 will almost certainly never get Ice Cream Sandwich. Also worth noting that each bar in the chart starts from the first day of release — so it only gets worse for people who bought their phone late in its sales period.

Why Is This So Bad?

This may be stating the obvious but there are at least three major reasons.

Consumers Get Screwed Ever since the iPhone turned every smartphone into a blank slate, the value of a phone is largely derived from the software it can run and how well the phone can run it. When you're making a 24-month commitment to a device, it'd be nice to have some way to tell if the software was going to be remotely current in a year or, heck, even a month. Turns out that's nearly impossible — here are two examples:

The Samsung Behold II on T-Mobile was the most expensive Android phone ever and Samsung promoted that it would get a major update to Eclair at least. But at launch the phone was already two major versions behind — and then Samsung decided not to do the update after all, and it fell three major OS versions behind. Every one ever sold is still under contract today.

The Motorola Devour on Verizon launched with a Megan Fox Super Bowl ad, while reviews said it was "built to last and it delivers on features". As it turned out, the Devour shipped with an OS that was already outdated. Before the next Super Bowl came around, it was three major versions behind. Every one ever sold is still under contract until sometime next year.

Developers Are Constrained Besides the obvious platform fragmentation problems, consider this comparison: iOS developers, like Instapaper's Marco Arment, waited patiently until just this month to raise their apps' minimum requirement to the 11-month old iOS 4.2.1. They can do so knowing that it's been well over three years since anyone bought an iPhone that couldn't run that OS. If developers apply that same standard to Android, it will be at least 2015 before they can start requiring 2010's Gingerbread OS. That's because every US carrier is still selling — even just now introducing(2) — smartphones that will almost certainly never run Gingerbread and beyond. Further, those are phones still selling for actual upfront money - I'm not even counting the generally even more outdated and presumably much more popular free phones.

It seems this is one area the Android/Windows comparison holds up: most app developers will end up targeting an ancient version of the OS in order to maximise market reach.

Security Risks Loom In the chart, the dashed line in the middle of each bar indicates how long that phone was getting any kind of support updates — not just major OS upgrades. The significant majority of models have received very limited support after sales were discontinued. If a security or privacy problem popped up in old versions of Android or its associated apps (i.e. the browser), it's hard to imagine that all of these no-longer-supported phones would be updated. This is only less likely as the number of phones that manufacturers would have to go back and deal with increases: Motorola, Samsung, and HTC all have at least 20 models each in the field already, each with a range of carriers that seemingly have to be dealt with individually.

Why Don't Android Phones Get Updated?

That's a very good question. Obviously a big part of the problem is that Android has to go from Google to the phone manufacturers to the carriers to the devices, whereas iOS just goes from Apple directly to devices. The hacker community (e.g. CyanogenMod, etc) has frequently managed to get these phones to run the newer operating systems, so it isn't a hardware issue.

It appears to be a widely held viewpoint(3) that there's no incentive for smartphone manufacturers to update the OS: because manufacturers don't make any money after the hardware sale, they want you to buy another phone as soon as possible. If that's really the case, the phone manufacturers are spectacularly dumb: ignoring the 24-month contract cycle and abandoning your users isn't going to engender much loyalty when they do buy a new phone. Further, it's been fairly well established that Apple also really only makes money from hardware sales, and yet their long term update support is excellent (see chart).

In other words, Apple's way of getting you to buy a new phone is to make you really happy with your current one, whereas apparently Android phone makers think they can get you to buy a new phone by making you really unhappy with your current one. Then again, all of this may be ascribing motives and intent where none exist — it's entirely possible that the root cause of the problem is just flat-out bad management (and/or the aforementioned spectacular dumbness).

A Price Observation

All of the even slightly cheaper phones are much worse than the iPhone when it comes to OS support, but it's interesting to note that most of the phones on this list were actually not cheaper than the iPhone when they were released. Unlike the iPhone however, the "full-priced" phones are frequently discounted in subsequent months. So the "low cost" phones that fuelled Android's generally accepted price advantage in this period were basically either (a) cheaper from the outset, and ergo likely outdated and terribly supported or (b) purchased later in the phone's lifecycle, and ergo likely outdated and terribly supported.

Also, at any price point you'd better love your rebates. If you're financially constrained enough to be driven by upfront price, you can't be that excited about plunking down another $US100 cash and waiting weeks or more to get it back. And sometimes all you're getting back is a "$US100 Promotion Card" for your chosen provider. Needless to say, the iPhone has never had a rebate.

Along similar lines, a very small but perhaps telling point: the price of every single Android phone I looked at ended with 99 cents - something Apple has never done (the iPhone is $US199, not $US199.99). It's almost like a warning sign: you're buying a platform that will nickel-and-dime you with ads and undeletable bloatware, and it starts with those 99 cents. And that damn rebate form they're hoping you don't send in.

Notes on the chart and data

Why stop at June 2010? I'm not going to. I do think that having 15 months or so of history gives a good perspective on how a phone has been treated, but it's also just a labour issue — it takes a while to dredge through the various sites to determine the history of each device. I plan to continue on and might also try to publish the underlying table with references. I also acknowledge that it's possible I've missed something along the way.

Android Release Dates For the major Android version release dates, I used the date at which it was actually available on a normal phone you could get via normal means. I did not use the earlier SDK release date, nor the date at which ROMs, hacks, source, etc, were available.

Outside the US Finally, it's worth noting that people outside the US have often had it even worse. For example, the Nexus One didn't go on sale in Europe until five months after the US, the Droid/Milestone FroYo update happened over seven months later there, and the Cliq never got updated at all outside of the US.

1. Thanks primarily to CNET and Wikipedia for the list of phones. 2. Yes, AT&T committed to Gingerbread updates for its 2011 Android phones, but only those that had already been released at the time of the July 25 press release. The Impulse doesn't meet that criteria. Nor does the Sharp FX Plus. 3. A couple of samples just from the past week: 1, 2 - in comments.

Republished with permission from theunderstatement.com


Comments

    In before "BUT XDA"!

    This is one of the massive issues with the Android ecosystem. It's further compounded by the fact that many Android handset manufacturers are pushing out new devices every few months, and do not have the capacity to support the maintenance of all their older phones.

    Combine this with the fact that some phones bought on a plan must have their updates modified by the service provider and you can be stuck waiting indefinitely for updates.

    Yes it's possible to go down the XDA/rooting path, but as a consumer you shouldn't have to. It's nice to have the option, but it shouldn't be a necessity.

      I post this without having read the article, but I did take a quick look at the graph. The story is more of an essay; so I’ll read it tonight in its entirety.

      I think the "what-about-me?" phenomenon is arguable the biggest bugbear amongst Android users. Thankfully I fall into the category of user’s who have rooter and loaded custom firmware, so I’m probably far less bothered about it; but it arguably is one of the reasons why I would recommend an iPhone over an Android handset to someone who isn’t a power user (nb. That isn’t to say that I think iOS isn’t suitable for power users as well)

      I am curious as to what the legalities would be, along with any issues of practicality for Google to start setting a charter of services to manufacturers in order for them to use their software. Something along the lines “that any hardware sold preloaded with Android must meet a minimum support period of 54 months after release” and that “major software updates must be made publicly available for hardware that meets minimum specification within 3 months of AOSP release”.

      In having said that, I suspect that would remove some of the appeal of Android to hardware manufacturers; plus it puts Google in a situation of dictating terms and conditions to their partner’s – which is a similar strategy to what Apple uses.

      I don't see it as that big of an issue. Most people don't care about phone software updates. Power users and people who come to tech sites do but then they've probably made a considered decision on the matter and either opted for an iPhone, Nexus device or one that can be easily rooted.

      I regularly see people at work (particularly those in the older generations)who have no idea that iOS has updates and have showed no interest in any new features or updating. Now that iOS updates OTA that'll probably change for all future versions but I still don't think it'd be a major factor in most people considerations when choosing a device. Think IE6 and XP. As long as it still 'gets to google' the majority of people couldn't care less about what's new.

        I don't think that's the case any more. Back with Smartphones, sure, but if someone sees something cool on someone else's phone, the first thing they say is "How do I get that on mine?"

          *Back with dumbphones

        I tend to disagree. There are two main reasons for wanting updates:

        1) New features. With fierce competition between Google and Apple (and to a lesser extent, Microsoft), there is generally good coverage on the 'fancy new features' that come with the next major update, and I would say that it's more than just the power users who would be aware of (some) of these. That's not to say all device owners would be aware, but a greater number than those who are in a position to root their device.

        2) Bug fixes. I had a Samsung Galaxy S on Optus some time ago. It took something like 9 months to eventually receive an update to fix the performance-related issues it was experiencing. Similarly, I now have a Motorola Xoom WiFi, which also has a number of bugs. Whilst this is not tied to a provider, Motorola have released the 3.2 update to US domestic customers, but not the rest of the world. It is possible for me to spend time messing around to get the update onto it, but the point is that I shouldn't have to.

        Whilst I fit into the category of 'power user', I don't have the time or inclination to be messing around with custom ROMs. As a consumer, I would like to be able to receive the updates as the operating system manufacturer makes them available.

        Apple is in a fortunate position; by wholly controlling the operating system, there is no need for anyone else to make modifications when they release an update. Similarly, because they only have a (relative) handful of devices in their product portfolio, there is less effort required to have it working across all of them.

        I don't know what the solution is, but I would like to think that Microsoft's tighter stance on things is a step in the right direction.

    Don't forget it's also the carriers that spend months not releasing updates because the want to add their bloatware instead...

    Also, considering the Nexus is really the only true comparison to the iPhone (i.e. direct link between the HW and the OS), the results are pretty good!

    Could it simply be a good business methodology. You appease the people who are power users by giving them XDA. Custom ROMS allow the ability to add features and allow a long life to less capable hardware(Must admit I didn't know much about this until recently). Happy community and a heap of developers that can support interested users. Planned obsolescence is less of an issue and less phones go into landfill, less often. Good outcome.
    Users who are simply consumers and want the latest, not because of the technology but because of the buzz/hype surrounding it receive the necessary planned obsolescence prod to do so... They will turnover a plan before it finishes to do this.
    Users who turn over a phone at the end of each plan, because they are used to it (I think the vast majority... Happy to be proven wrong there) get a new phone that they can be happy with until the plan ends again.
    Seems to deal with a lot of user levels and keeps hardware manufactueres happy also.

    After this, I'm seriously considering just turning off my HTC Desire HD phone all together, putting it in a drawer somewhere and just living without one. It's that depressing knowing that I'll never truly be happy with my phone.

      Can I has your phone? :P

    Well, ok, I get it. There's a price to be paid when you buy your hardware from someone other than the software supplier. True in desktop systems, too. Thing is, buying into the ecosystem has its costs. The effort that I've put into rooting my phones to install the latest Android OS is nothing compared with the effort I've spent fighting against iTunes to manage my partner's iPhone. But it's not much of a revelation to say that if being cradled in the loving arms of a corporation is important to you, iOS is probably the way to go.

    that was my biggest frustration with Galaxy S and Tab. There were bugs and shit and no updates. Programs (like skype) needed the next version. I wouldn't touch Android with a 10 foot pole until they figure this out. Still, WP7 is looking stronger and stronger. Maybe Android will become redundant (or used just in cheap devices) once there is a proper alternative.

    I think what annoys me most, is that even nexus devices don't get updates on the same day. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe it took the nexus one a few weeks to get updated to gingerbread after the release of the nexus s. Then it took another few weeks for vodafone to push it ota to their phones. These are nexus devices for crying out loud. These phones are supposed to be pure google, so why does it take ages to roll out updates?

    Apple has updated the 3GS along with many ios devices to ios5, and all on the same day. Google can't update 2-3 nexus devices on the same day, or evem in the same week. What an embarrassment. I honestly wonder if google takes updates seriously, or if they're just in this for ad revenue and search. Sure, apple is in this to tie users into their ecosystem, but atleast their products get updates for ~3 years.

    I also think the 18 month update promise thing is complete bs.

    I like many got sucked into getting the Galaxy S2. Now I have to concede that I will never get ICS on my phone while the 3GS I had 2 years ago is still getting updates

      Where does it say the SGS2 will not get ICS...?? You'll find that it more than likely will get it.

        lol... "more than likely" on a phone only 6 months old.

          I would put money on the galaxy sII getting an ICS update as it is still samsung's flagship phone (Yes I do know about the nexus prime but the galaxy is better...) I have accepted the fact that I probably won't get ICS as I have a Galaxy S and have rooted it but I know that I will get updates as it is rooted and has the same specs as the nexus s.

        i am willing to bet the 3g runs like crap. my wife's phone slows down more and more with every version.... forceing a hardware update... marketing

    It amazes me how reasonable all the comments have been on this article, nice to see some good discussion without all the juvenile "Suck it crapple I'll never be an iSheep!" for once! :)

      That's because iPhone owners are sitting back enjoying their still updated handsets while Android users realise there's no support for theirs ;)

        Aaahh there it is!
        I knew there had to be a troll attempt somewhere in here!

        This from a satisfied and incredibly unintersted iPhone owner.

        Updades are nice, but if your phone doesn't do what yhat you want it to, then you should have bought a different phone.

      I was reading through the comments expecting a shit-storm myself but was very pleasantly surprised with everybody here. It's just a shame android probably wont fix this issue anytime soon. I had the First galaxy s which was an excellent phone... for a few months. back when froyo kept getting pushed back. I remember being so sick of contantly bricking and un-bricking and custom roms.

    There's a price for everything and we all get to make a decision on the purchase afterall, after consideration of features, price and personal needs. Let's face it. We buy a phone coz the current features on it is great and/or better than the others we have tried - and of good value in our own perspective. when do you go out and grab a phone that you don't like? Good luck to anyone who buys a smartphone without doing so. iPhone has its own realm of bugs and restrictive features that never got fixed anyway - regardless of new iOS release.

    Most of these concerns really sprout from super-users who are envy of new features and does not have the technical competence & confidence to do it - even when the dev community have made it so easy already. (**FEAR of getting bricked and voiding warranty!!**)

    I don't see the dev / power users having problems fiddling with upgrades where the hardware manufacturers are falling short. And in fact, this is a very much welcomed feature for these group of users.

    Pick a device that suits your needs and wallet size! Technology will always evolve, and your phone will die a natural death anyway. if you're always envy of new features in new O/S, you should be just as keen to invest in better hardware too.

    This is why I ( and plenty of others) are worried about the rise and rise of Australian carriers making exclusivity deals on specific handsets. Previously we have always had the option of getting a handset untainted by the carriers branding and crapware but those days are passing rapidly.
    Fortunately we still have unlocked phones or free unlocking but I do wonder how long that will last..

      This kinda worries me too.

      But then I think back to when some phones had the carrier branded on the handset.
      Telstra's CDMA handsets come to mind.
      So it's not like we haven't been there before...

    I think one reason is that Apple has a big investment in services like iTunes and iCloud so they have a business reason to keep their users satisfied... the longer they are in the walled garden, the harder it is to leave. Three years of iMusic and iMovies is hard to leave behind.

    Android handset manufacturers on the other hand are almost entirely in the business of selling hardware (with the exception of Sony Ericsson which can be explained by stupefyingly incompetence), so there is little to be made updating handsets other than to appease the techie market.

    All the (popular) services are provided by Google so it's in their interests in pushing out new updates, and as a rule, they do push out updates for their line of nexus phones fairly quickly excepting the Nexus One with ICS, which I wouldn't be surprised to see rescinded as the XDA folks have all but got it running.

    The other big hurdle I see is the carriers who see Android as a platform to push their affiliated and in-house crapware, simply because they have the power to do so.
    Many Android buyers are not a loyal lot. They may prefer HTC, but if there's a nice Motorolla on the day, they are likely to walk away with that just because it's there and the HTC wasn't.
    The carriers can't really do that with the iPhone because it's a no-compromise must-have for iFans so they miss out on the contract.

    When the handset manufacturers know that their hard work has to be replicated (or more to the point ruined) by the carriers for the vast majority of phones, it seems even less worthwhile to update all but the flagship models.
    Breaking that carrier stranglehold will do wonders for the android ecosystem.

    This is definitely a big problem with Android, at least for a segment of the market. It would be great to see google break this cycle and be able to push updates directly.

    I think the author too eagerly neglects the fact that android phones (outright) are often available at substantially less than RRP from their release, while iPhones are only ever available at $800 for a year or so after their release.

    What's more, some food for thought: A friend of mine bought a 3GS 16 months ago, it cost him $800 (spread out over his 24 month contract. Four months later I got the technically superior Motorola XT 720, which truth be told had terrible manufacturer support, but received a community update to froyo in lieu. a year later the XT 720 hardware is very dated, as is the 3GS hardware. The difference is that I just picked up an atrix for another $400 (making my two phones' total cost the same as his one), and my mate's stuck with his bogged-down 3GS for another 8 months.

    this is just android bashing.
    hardly anyone cares or thinks about updates if a phone is working well and if it really did bother them then they can go to xda, and no you don't need root to install official roms.

    I'm sick of gizmodo android, get over it not everyone likes iPhone, I had the iPhone 4 for 6 months and I got sick of the restrictions, and guess what, I am running what ever firmware version I want because I can and my phone does not have root access.

      First of all, Gizmodo didn't write this.
      Second of all, this fragmentation from Android has always been a topic and it's nice to see it in graph form.
      Third of all, no-one is making anything up, they're just facts, it doesn't say iPhones are better, just that they're supported longer than Android phones, and they are.

        But Giz still republished it. They're happy posting articles about how the Galaxy Nexus's display is Pentile, but no rebuttal. Or how there's no Gorilla Glass, despite there being no indication that this is a negative. They'll also happily post articles about Siri, but not one about how it was an IP4 feature before its artificial exclusivity.

        You never see the same thrown at IOS. The most recent IP4S review literally had 0 cons. And the 'reviewer' went out of his way to say Android/WP7 will never come close.

        You don't think that sounds the least bit like bias?

      This is not bashing or glorifying anything mate, its just a bunch of factual information.

      Anyone with their head on straight understands the advantages and disadvantages of both iOS and Android based phones.

      I'd say since you're the kind of person that uses the term 'firmware' then you are going to have different needs and wants to most people. You are well catered for and so is everyone else, its a wonderful world.

        Its a bunch of factual information?

        It seem to be a heavily biased graph.

        With almost yearly releases and I could be wrong I haven't checked, but I thought a business model where last years model went to the budget bin so they had only 2 models on sale at a time (until the 4S) how are they selling them 3years after release as the graph suggests...

        And that also begs the question, who were the idiots buying 3 year old iphones...that's not a good thing, that's taking people for a ride by selling them a crap product when a current gen budget android phone would be way better.

        Also, the updates aren't always a good thing, how many people went back to old firmware on their 3g because the updates started making their phones run like shit.

        And then Apple also actively stops you from downgrading your firmware after it's too old, so if you have an older phone, update it and don't downgrade in time you are stuck with a phone that runs like my old 486 computer.

        I'm not saying that Apple's approach isn't better, or that Android manufacturers shouldn't do better.

        But that graph on it's own paints an incredibly biased picture, there are pros and cons on both sides.

          Oh I misread that graph (I just woke up I swear :P )...ignore my post, the graph is fine..

          Well the point about updates slowing phones down and not allowing downgrading still stands ; D

        I'm only reacting to the facts, not this particular article. Gizmodo are happy to state that the new nexus has a outdated penile display to the iphone but they don't post that phone arena did a side by side close up shot of text on both and there is no difference.
        Your right that I should not get upset about some graph but I've been reading gizmodo for a few years now and this is what I've noticed.
        The graphics is the star that broke the camels back.

    To be honest before I got my iPhone I didn't know phones get software updates.. Probably apart from a Nokia N95 software update error that wiped all my data..

    The chart is wrong... the apple iphone's latest update is 3.1.3 and the apple iphone 3g's latest update is 4.2.1.....orange and yellow for you!

    I dont see the big problem. 9 out of 10people at my work have iphones and they sync to there PC once every year let alone know that there is such things as updates.

    As for android. 5 people bought the sgs2 after i showed them mine and they are happy with it. As long as angry birds runs fine.

      It matters because smartphones at this point are more or less general purpose computing devices and have all the traditional security etc issues that come with that.

      Having a large number of devices out with known security holes is a *very* bad thing. Even if you don't care about your privacy/bill/whatever, consider that botnets built on this sort of thing are responsible for the vast majority of spam etc.

      It's a serious problem, and Google really needs a mechanism to make sure these devices are at least getting security updates until they're effectively not used. There's no security reason why new features should have to be backported though of course.

    Device fragmentation is a bitch!
    This is why I believe Apple will win the battle on the long term. Device fragmentation will kill Android if it keeps going the way it is.

    I was planning on getting the New Nexus when my iphone 4 contract expires, but reading this article makes me think twice.

    I came from the 3G-4 so that will be 4 years of Apple. I must admit on the early days I did jailbreak to get the features I want, but as of now I cant think of any features that my phone is missing, I would like to go Android but I am scared, the best bit about apple is not regretting the decision to buy the new iphone, I know it will be the flagship for 1 year and I know I will get updates for the life of the contract.

    Android is not going anywhere soon, it's just a phone, same as the iphone, with limited life span.

    Besides, anybody who cares enough about versions will be managing the software themselves (i.e. nerds).

    Finally, normal people are just like "Oooooh, shiny!" when they get a new phone, play with ridiculously for a couple of months, then patiently wait for their contract to run out so that they can get a new "OOooh, shiny!"

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