The Update Battle: Innovation vs legacy support
Where companies draw the line
As we mentioned, each company has to choose where to draw the line on the continuum between innovation and supporting legacy devices, and for the most part it seems as though both Apple and Google have chosen well in where to draw that line, and how much to push forward without leaving too many devices behind. However, there are always times when a company needs to push forward a little bit harder than others, and maybe leave behind more users than people would like. Because of the 2-year contract cycle, the safest way to push forward seems to be in pushing a hardware update one generation, and pushing the big software bump in the next, even if that means leaving out 2-year old devices. At the speed which the mobile industry moves these days, companies don't have the luxury of boosting hardware too far in advance of a major software upgrade, because device turnover is so fast.
Google also tried to prepare its Android ecosystem with the Nexus S, which boosted the GPU and internal storage in preparation for the next generation bump in the OS requirements. In general, the Android ecosystem pushed itself forward through the competition between handset makers. The trouble there is that Google only suggests ways for handset makers to push forward hardware, which means there is a delay between the introduction of a Nexus device and any improvements the rest of the ecosystem decide to implement. And, manufacturers may not implement certain features at all, like NFC for which Google obviously has big plans, but not enough manufacturer support.
GPUs and internal storage have been improved since the generation of the Nexus One, but the users with handsets similar to the Nexus One may not be near the end of their contract cycles just yet. In this regard, we might even say that the delay in Android manufacturers pushing OS updates may actually become a benefit, because by the time ICS is pushing towards being the dominant Android version on the market, and is shipping on a number of devices, those users may be in the market for new handsets.
How to play the market
Of course, that argument doesn't completely work, because any delay between something being released and it being available to users causes is bound to cause an uproar with a smaller set of very vocal users. The majority of mobile users often don't know or care what version of the OS they have, and likely don't know that they are even missing any features. Unfortunately, we here at PhoneArena and all the communities around mobile tech news live in an echo chamber filled with that vocal minority who understand exactly what is happening and get riled up with every perceived injustice. We here are burdened with knowledge. We know when there are features out there that we don't have, and because we choose to be here, we're also the type of people who need to have those new features.
With Android, as usual, things are a bit messier, and therefore require more work on the part of the user. If you need to have the newest software features as soon as possible, you want to be in the Nexus lane and get the newest Google experience phone when it comes out during the holiday season. If you want the best hardware, that seems to hit the market in late spring to early summer each year, and often by then, those devices will come loaded with the newest OS, so you won't have to worry about waiting for an update. But, because of the makeup of the Android ecosystem, it's possible that the newest hardware won't be optimized with the software until later. For example, dual-core processors have been in devices since early 2011, but only the tablet OS Honeycomb has been optimized for those processors, and phone optimization is coming with ICS, which still has yet to be released.
With Android, you always need to be aware of what devices are due out, and what the competition is, especially if you aren't buying a new device when it is launched. If you want the best features with Android, it takes a lot more research and due diligence to make sure you don't get burned. Luckily, as Google announced at I/O this year, there is a new clause in the Open Handset Alliance agreement which guarantees software updates to Android devices within 18 months. Unfortunately, 18 months is a really long time, and that clause has also just gone into effect, so the troubles with older handsets being updated will continue at the mercy of your manufacturer. The best guarantees for software updates are either being in the Nexus lane, buying in the spring or summer when the new OS begins to be shipped on new devices, or to be part of the root crew and put your faith in Team Douche and the Cyanogen ROMs.
No matter what your choice, it helps to understand the realities of the market, the major point of which is the 2-year contract cycle. As annoying as it may be, especially if you live somewhere that doesn't actually use this system, the phone in your hand has a set life engrained in it. It has at most a year of being on the top level, and one year sliding through the middle. After those two years, if you choose to hold on, you need to understand that your device will be falling into the bottom level. The support structure for both Apple and Google is like this: support 2 year old top end devices, 1 year old mid-range devices, and current low-end phones. Everyone else needs to upgrade if they're that desperate to get new features.
Both Apple and Google have been good about keeping devices compatible with software updates for upwards of 3 years, but there will be times when the software needs to push forward a little harder than older devices can handle. Because of the closed and controlled ecosystem, Apple can be better about this, but that assurance comes with all of the other issues in the iOS ecosystem that may not work for your needs or desires. Google has a much more difficult job, because of the makeup of the Android ecosystem, and there is far more work required of users to make sure you don't get left in the lurch, or buy in at the wrong time. But, each has proven that it chooses well in the timing to push. Apple was in desperate need of a multitasking solution, and pushed to add it. Google was in desperate need of a UI overhaul and has pushed forward to add that. All of these innovations, especially in the Android ecosystem, are for the benefit of the top level users first and foremost, because if you buy the best on the market, you're more likely to get the upgrades faster. Also, updates will tend to go to the most engaged users, who tend to be those who buy top of the line, rather than those who just grab whatever is cheapest. It's not enough to know about the new features and devices coming out, you have to be very careful with your choices unless you go with Nexus devices and stick to the 2 year plan.
These times of a harder push forward may leave those with 2 year old phones behind, but we're of the mind that these companies have more of a responsibility to innovate and push their systems forward than to hold back for the benefit of those with older handsets. As soon as companies start to slow down their rate of innovation in favor of supporting older hardware, something new is more likely to come along and push that entire platform towards obsolescence. We would rather see platform wide evolution, rather than platform wide obsolescence.