The Update Battle: Innovation vs legacy support

The Update Battle: Innovation vs legacy support
The recent news that the Nexus One will not be getting the official update to Ice Cream Sandwich has unsurprisingly created a debate over where companies fall and where they should fall along the continuum of innovating software versus supporting legacy devices. What has surprised some, however, is that this time it is Google pushing forward and leaving legacy devices in the lurch. Until this year, it had been Apple pushing 2 year old iPhones into forced obsolescence, but now it is Google leaving older hardware behind. So, we wanted to look at both sides, why it was happening, and whether it should continue.

The continuum

The first issue we need to tackle is the basic idea of innovation versus supporting legacy devices. This is a hard line to draw, and often becomes a sticking point with many consumers, because they may draw their lines in a different spot on the continuum compared to the software manufacturers. The basic trouble is that software companies have to decide first how long the life cycle of devices will be. This is often judged based on the overall competition of the market and the cost of the product, which will be the major factor in when consumers will decide to upgrade. 

Some markets, while there may be competition, saw long periods without much innovation. TVs have had extremely long life cycles given their cost, because until the mandate for HDTV, there wasn't much innovation that could be made. TVs could be made bigger or lighter, but in general consumers didn't buy new TVs until the old one broke (or you moved and couldn't be bothered to haul out the 600 pound plasma that you had bought,) because there was a limit to how good a TV could be. Now, we're seeing more innovation not only in TV picture quality, but in connectivity to the web and other services. 

Computers have seen a better rate of innovation because of the myriad ways they are used, and the various needs that consumers have, but the rate has slowed, because while hardware still gets better, the majority of software innovations these days are on the web, which doesn't really require any more hardware power for consumers. There has been about a 3-5 year life cycle for laptops, depending on your needs, and desktops have been even longer because the cost to power ratio is better on desktops than laptops. Then, there is the mobile space. 

The mobile world saw a long stretch with a slower innovation rate aside from the size of devices. When smartphones first hit the market, the rate increased somewhat, but was still slower because the cost of devices kept consumer adoption low. Now, we're hitting the sweet spot where devices are relatively cheap (depending on where you live in the world), and there are tons of different ways for devices to improve because of the explosion of uses for smartphones. 

As we've talked about before, hardware and software manufacturers in the mobile space have settled into a cycle of 2 years, mainly due to the prevalence of 2-year carrier contracts in the United States and parts of Europe. Some don't like this pattern, but we tend to think it's for the best, because we would rather see more innovation than holding back in order to provide legacy support. It's also important to note that legacy support doesn't just mean older devices like the Nexus One, but current low-end phones. Although, given the 2-year cycle, those often are the same things.

The trouble is that if a company falls too far onto the side of supporting legacy devices instead of innovating, there can be major consequences, which we have seen in the major decline of BlackBerry, in Nokia eventually abandoning Symbian, and in Microsoft killing Windows Mobile in favor of Windows Phone. All were great systems in their time, but failed to innovate enough once the modern generation of mobile smartphone operating systems emerged with iOS and Android.


Apple has gotten unwarranted flak for forcing obsolescence on 2-year old, when it may not deserve the reputation. Every version of iOS has been compatible with the device that was 2 years old at the time of the update. At launch, as with every launch, there was a very vocal minority of users who found that the update caused the performance of their devices to not drop significantly, but Apple has always been able to smooth out those issues in subsequent updates. Rather than force obsolescence on 2-year old devices, Apple has always chosen to hold back certain features either for performance reasons, or hardware reasons. 

The iPhone 2G was compatible with iOS 3, and the iPhone 3G was compatible with iOS 4, but there were trade-offs that had to be made. Aside from possible performance issues with some users, the iPhone 2G did not support MMS or stereo Bluetooth, which were two of the major features of iOS 3. The iPhone 3G did not support multitasking, which was the biggest feature of iOS 4. Now, the iPhone 3GS does support iOS 5, and has not had any reported issues with performance, it does not support the persistent location awareness/notifications offered in iOS 5. While all of these features were more major features of each update, they were also just one or two of a huge set of feature updates in each of those new versions of iOS. Apple has also obviously held back Siri from compatibility with any other devices. Siri has been hacked and ported to both the iPhone 4 and iPad 2, and doesn't really work on those devices only because of not being able to communicate with Apple servers. So, making Siri an iPhone 4s exclusive seems to be more of a marketing decision rather than one based on performance issues.

Of course, while Apple has added many new features over the years, none has been exceptionally resource intensive aside from multitasking. Apple hasn't made any major changes to the look and feel of iOS aside from wallpapers and folders, so Apple has been able to innovate as it sees fit without worrying too much about the system itself hogging unnecessary amounts of resources. Because the iOS UI has stayed relatively the same, the major driving force behind iPhone hardware iteration has always been in the apps, more specifically in games, and making games run better often with a strong focus on bringing a better GPU with each iteration. Additionally, the iPhone has always had plenty of storage, so the overall size of the system has never been much of an issue. 

These are all benefits of Apple's closed and controlled system, where it dictates what works where and can easily control features and how the system runs on the hardware. And, especially now that the iPhone 3GS, as the 2-year old hardware at this point, has stayed in stores as the free option in the line of iPhones, Apple has a vested interest in making sure that it can easily run iOS 5. Android is a much more messy ecosystem, and will be much more difficult to dissect. 


Google doesn't have the same luxuries as Apple because of the makeup of the Android ecosystem, which makes it extremely difficult to remove specific features on lower-end devices like Apple can, and because of way it has chosen to design Android. Android, as Kevin Marks often says, is designed in two parts: the bottom half is the open-source part, which can be used by anyone on any device. This is the half which is the base for many ultra-cheap handsets, as well as the Barnes & Noble NOOK Color and upcoming Amazon Kindle Fire. The top half is the "with Google" piece. This includes all of the Google apps like Maps, Talk, and Gmail, as well as the grand unifier of the Android Market, which is essentially what creates the Android ecosystem as we know it. There are no requirements for the bottom half as it is free and open source, but the top half does come with requirements from Google, though they are notoriously lax. 

In order to get the "with Google"stamp and the top half of Android, manufacturers must agree to the terms of the Open Handset Alliance, and pass certain qualifications such as having a cellular radio, GPS, etc. Unfortunately, Google put no stipulations in either of these which dictate processor speed, GPU speed, internal storage size, screen size or resolution. For these purposes, Google has used the Nexus devices as a suggestion of features including CPU speed with the Nexus One, GPU speed and internal storage with the Nexus S, and screen resolution with the Galaxy Nexus. For the purposes of this discussion, the main specs that we're concerned with are GPU speed and internal storage, which means our tipping point is the Nexus S.

Because Google doesn't mandate a certain amount of internal storage, phones from the Nexus One era shipped with a max of about 512MB of storage (some had more simply to accomodate the Sense UI and other manufacturer overlays.) This became a big bottleneck for the Android system in a number of ways. Obviously, it meant a limit on the number of apps and the size of apps which could be installed. Google brought in Apps2SD as a workaround for the issue, but came with its own problem in that widgets were unavailable for apps installed on the SD card. Limited storage also meant that the size of the OS couldn't grow either, especially with manufacturer UIs taking up chunks of that storage. 

Now with Ice Cream Sandwich, Google has added quite a bit of visual flare to the historically spartan and utilitarian Android UI. Because Google has made just about everything more graphically intensive (therefore resource and storage intensive), the Nexus One has been left behind. It isn't a matter of CPU speed, because the Nexus S will be getting the update and it is also a 1 GHz single core CPU. The major difference is in the GPU packed in the Nexus S, and in the added storage space. These are also not exactly new features that can easily be stripped out in order to accommodate older low end phones, because while ICS has added a many nice under-the-hood features, many of the improvements of ICS including the new People app, multitasking design, and subtle animations are all tied to the new UI. If Google stripped out most of the UI improvements to make a "lite" version, that would create two different looking versions of stock Android. Given the complaints Google has been getting for allowing manufacturer skins, and that kind of fragmentation of the market, there's no way it could release two versions of stock that look different, especially since the goal of ICS was to create a consistent and prettier UI. 

Of course, the reasoning behind why the Nexus One and other similar phones will likely be left behind with the Ice Cream Sandwich update are only part of the story. The other part is in the timing. And, the biggest trouble with the timing of this bump is that the Nexus One was delayed and didn't come out for the 2009 holiday season as it was planned, so many users with it, or devices with similar specs, won't be eligible for the official ICS update, and also aren't close enough to the 2-year upgrade.



87. redflag_rising

Posts: 20; Member since: Oct 26, 2011

hell yeah.. after reading one of the threads 3 days ago abt the ics updates .. and after a day a full story abt the comparisson.. well done ... thumbs up for this one......

92. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011


71. cupcake

Posts: 106; Member since: Apr 15, 2010

Good article! Well done.

91. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011



Posts: 3131; Member since: Jan 12, 2010

I hope Michael starts reviewing phones. I am really curious to see how indepth and detailed his reviews will be compared to the others. I would rather see someone who actually cares about the device he/she has in their hands then someone holding it, swiping through the homescreens back and forth and reading off of a script.

62. Lwazi_N

Posts: 205; Member since: Jun 23, 2011

Great article indeed, Mike- as per usual. And your analysis- in-depth. You're really doing a good job!

63. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011


61. Stuntman

Posts: 843; Member since: Aug 01, 2011

First of all, I would like to say this is one of the best articles I have read in a while. It is very informative and detailed without any obvious bias. I feel truely enlightend. It is articles such as this that also draw many meaniful and intelligent comments from readers. As for a user of smartphones, I tend to fall somewhere in between the power user and one who doesn't care about updates. I am drawn to wanting to get updates, but I have been burned on a few apps where an update broke things and took some time before another update fixes it. It has made me take a step back to assess what I really need and if I'm happy with what I currently have now. I have an HTC Desire Z and it was released with Froyo just before Gingerbread was released. It took until this summer before I got my Gingerbread update. While still on Froyo, I personnally was not over anxious about Gingerbread as I was happy with Froyo. I am happy with Gingerbread now. I am impressed with ICS. I don't think that it would be available for my phone. Keyboard sliders tend not to be as popular as touch screen only phones. Also, the hardware is probably just below the minimum that would make ICS run well. Also, since it is an HTC phone, Sense would also increase the strain on the hardware. There wasn't anything in ICS that I really wanted other than resizable widgets, but that is certainly not a deal breaker that would make me want to ditch my phone. My contract doesn't end for another year and a half and I plan to keep using my phone until then and perhaps a little bit beyond if I am still happy with my phone then.

90. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

Thanks for the comment! I'd expect the Desire Z to get ICS. It's essentially just the G2 with Sense, so I'd think that could happen pretty easily. Your feelings are understandable though, because Gingerbread didn't have much as far as overt features that users would be clamoring for, just under the hood stuff that only those who were really interested would know about. Aren't resizeable widgets part of Sense? Or am I getting that confused with TouchWiz? There are certainly launchers that offer it, like LauncherPro.

95. remixfa

Posts: 14605; Member since: Dec 19, 2008

your confusing it with motoblur. sense doesnt have resizable widgets. TW4 might but it doesnt ring a bell off the top of my head.

97. KingKurogiii

Posts: 5713; Member since: Oct 23, 2011

TW4 does have resizable widgets.

100. remixfa

Posts: 14605; Member since: Dec 19, 2008

lol, i think between u me and proto, we might just know everything. :)

32. dorfoz

Posts: 156; Member since: Oct 18, 2011

I can understand Apple's viewpoint. 3gs was released 2 years ago, which is usually the length of your contract. And by this time, just like many of my friends who has 3gs' they've upgraded to 4s which is timely. Apple's decision to include iOS 5 to 3gs is kind to the consumers with legacy devices. Anything prior to 3gs technology is obviously obsolete. Who the heck still carries a 3+ year old phones around anyway? At least the Apple's IOS doesn't leave it's consumers behind. Android on the other hand, indeed, I do agree is such a great os with massive potential, yet with this potential, Google doesn't mandate any basis of requirement to each phone company. Hence the consumer looses. It sucks to see many of my android friends who are loyal to the brand and get thrown under the bus 3-6 months after buying a flagship phone whom they paid premium price in the first place. I do have a Galaxy S phone which I bought last year, thinking it was the best, and truly it still performs well, however, to those chumps who have no clue how to root and use roms in their phones to actually get a mandated update from Google, they're the suckers who shelled out $200.00 and is the reason why I really hate android. In addition, last year's Galaxy S lines, or HTC's Flagship phones, Motorola Droid, LG's flagship phones may or may not even get a taste of ICS, let alone Gingerbread this year or the next -- and they were released a year after the 3gs! It's really boggling how Android doesn't care. Android is like a company who just throws out an OS and let 10 Phone manufacturers beat the s**t out of each other and do a spec war amongst themselves, whereas, Windows and Apple have strict requirements for each phone in order for them to perform well. There's no quality control, integrity and loyalty. Android fanboys will always say it's the best cuz they know it inside out, but for the average consumer, you either learn it inside out or get taken advantaged of by the hype of android's so called user customization and "Freedom".

37. arcq12

Posts: 733; Member since: Oct 13, 2011

i couldn't agree more. cheers!

55. remixfa

Posts: 14605; Member since: Dec 19, 2008

its not ANDROID, its MANUFACTURERS AND CARRIERS. If the manufacturers didnt give the phone enough internal memory to hold the ICS system, it cant have it.. if it didnt sell enough its not going to be a priority update. Carriers want you to want to upgrade so they prolong or refuse updates from manufacturers.. the GalaxyS is a perfect example of that. The ENTIRE WORLD got 2.3 for their galaxyS phones like 6-8 months ago.. NO carrier in america has allowed the update.. why? to make u want the SGS2 more. Android provides everything that the manufacturers and carriers need. Its not android's fault that the phones arent updated. and again for the 4 billionth time NEVER buy a phone expecting an update. LOVE IT for what it is RIGHT THEN or dont buy it.

28. vette21man

Posts: 351; Member since: Apr 06, 2011

Nice engaging article! After reading the title, I didn't think it would be about "software" updates in relation to legacy devices, but about designing to legacy ports and form factors. It begs my question...When do you think Apple will ditch its 30-pin connector and 3.5mm headphone jack? Are we nearing a time where we simply have no ports at all? A time of charging inductively, listening to bluetooth headphones, and transferring all data wirelessly? How long is my stereo dock going to be compatible with iPhone? Can the 30-pin connector support USB 3.0?

35. protozeloz

Posts: 5396; Member since: Sep 16, 2010

30 pin connector will support 3.0 as long as the device supports it, apple has being requested to use the USB standard (companies are enforced to do so) some countries apple has o ship an adapter to micro USB. the law is being trying to enforce certain standards for consumer satisfaction and ease of use, Ive being on the smartphone business for as long a I can remember and you needed a charger for SE one for moto one for HTC, sammy and so on, and even some chargers wont work on phones of the same brand, then an agreement was made so this wont be happening anymore. apple so far is the only one not doing it (dont know why), but they might go soon 3.5mm will be here for a while until we need to have it removed to make phones thinner and lighter, its being there because of quality.

23. bolaG

Posts: 468; Member since: Aug 15, 2011

I can always tell when I read an article from you without looking at the authors name :)) Great job as always Michael! I think that a 2yr life is perfect. Also what slows down the phones are the continuous updates the apps get as well. My old droid went all the way to froyo and that was fine for me. What was the point of getting gengerbread if the phone was already running pretty slow on froyo? I noticed that every time I would update my apps my OG Droid would run a tad slower and that continued exponentially throught out the continues app updates.

58. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011


22. protozeloz

Posts: 5396; Member since: Sep 16, 2010

Great atricle man :D OF TOPIC when you gonna talk task manager and android?

57. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

I don't know. The topic seems played out to me. I feel like there have been so many pieces around the web talking about them and the myth around them that there isn't much new I could add. Besides, I'm pretty sure the only people who use them are people who have never heard of this website and don't bother coming around here.

59. KingKurogiii

Posts: 5713; Member since: Oct 23, 2011

it's okay man, it's just a really emotional topic for some people. i still have nightmares about my Devour devouring my hopes for some Eclair. *shivers*

77. protozeloz

Posts: 5396; Member since: Sep 16, 2010

Oh no I was talking about task killers and why you don't need them.

78. protozeloz

Posts: 5396; Member since: Sep 16, 2010

Tried :-(

83. remixfa

Posts: 14605; Member since: Dec 19, 2008

i still use a task manager. ive done with.. and without. and i can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt, if my tablet/phone starts getting a lil laggy/jaggy.. i can kill everything for the most part on that ATK list and 5 seconds later my phone is running smooth as butter. Of course, it doesnt kill all apps like that stupid wifi calling app or other syncing apps that drain battery (menu, settings, apps, running apps.. turn it off!) but it definately clears some memory quickly.

85. protozeloz

Posts: 5396; Member since: Sep 16, 2010

You Must E-mail ME NAO I'll have some tricks to share ;) regarding this matter I killed my task manager on 2.1-2.2 and I've never lived happier

89. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

That's why people don't need task killers exactly, just grab Watchdog from the market. It watches for runaway processes that will cause lag.

99. protozeloz

Posts: 5396; Member since: Sep 16, 2010

I deal with those personally =) I have a processor logger when I see an app is getting loose on that I follow track on it and mail the dev with pics telling him his app is resource abusing, few updates later app performs great again

20. bigboss

Posts: 80; Member since: Oct 26, 2011

Popular phones with a large user base are more likely to get updates than those less popular good phones.

17. bigboss

Posts: 80; Member since: Oct 26, 2011

If you want upgrades then you should go for superphones. I do not think that the present widows phone or blackberry os are going to be updated.

* Some comments have been hidden, because they don't meet the discussions rules.

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