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.



1. AdamW33

Posts: 39; Member since: Aug 25, 2011

I feel like the vast majority of cell phone users don't care where their phone lies in the spectrum. In fact, I know many smartphone users that have ignored every software update available simply because they don't want to take the time and are happy the way it is. Most people don't need the best thing on the market. They just want something that is easy to use and has the features they need. Hence the iPhone domination. Me personally? I'd rather a top-of-the-line Android device.

3. Alantef

Posts: 288; Member since: Sep 14, 2011

word for word...totally agree!...wonderful post!

43. Retro-touch unregistered

This reflects the vast majority of people I come across. They don't even know updates exist, they're too busy living to worry about having the best tech on their phone. The phone is mainly for communication, somewhere along the line we outgrew that and people saw the need to have an all-in-one device hence the smartphones today. The majority of people are blissfully ignorant and I can't blame them, it doesn't benefit anyone knowing excessive info about phones unless your in the business of selling phones, although I'd rather be in the minority that's in the know and glad sites like PA exist.

2. Alantef

Posts: 288; Member since: Sep 14, 2011

for android is that a jelly bean??

5. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

Yeah, the next version is rumored to be Jelly Bean. I'm hoping for Key Lime Pie after that.

38. remixfa

Posts: 14605; Member since: Dec 19, 2008

darn it.. ur making me hungry.. lol

42. remixfa

Posts: 14605; Member since: Dec 19, 2008

BTW, good job on the article. :)


Posts: 3131; Member since: Jan 12, 2010

The thing is, Android is completely advancing over IOS and quickly. IOS has a 2 year lead on Android but look how advanced Android has become already. IOS has made improvements and some changes but for the most part they are slight and don't impact the device it's running on nearly as much as Android. The Nexus One was a super phone when it first launched nearly 2 years ago but just about a year ago we got the first dual core phone with 1GB of RAM and a much superior graphics processor. Android phones become outdated very quickly due to the fast and powerful advancing of their own OS. ICS is going to require a lot of horsepower and rightfully so. We all want change, we all want advancement, we don't want the same Gingerbread all over again. Put a 1.5ghz dual core processor with 1GB of RAM and only give it 2.0 and can you imagine how blazing fast it would be? It would be complete overkill just like the dual core processor is on the iPhone 4S. In the past, android devices have not been able to meet the system requires it's own OS has required. But they have quickly made those changes with overclocking their dual core processors and giving them nearly double the RAM. Not only that but ICS is made for dual core processors as it is off of Honeycomb and no longer running from Gingerbread. So yes I predict that the Galaxy Nexus will get android 5.0 but after that it will be too outdated. That's just the way it goes and rightfully so.

67. taco50

Posts: 5506; Member since: Oct 08, 2009

they become outdated due to a poor os that can't manage resources


Posts: 3131; Member since: Jan 12, 2010

Now taco, that isn't true. Every update that Android has had has required much more processor power and RAM and devices couldn't hold up.

70. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

I wondered when you'd show up with something that makes no sense. The problem is that Google never mandated minimum internal storage and older phones don't have the space to store ICS. It has nothing to do with resource management. P.S. Taco, not even a mention of the incredibly fair treatment of iOS in the article? No credit at all?


Posts: 3131; Member since: Jan 12, 2010

Agreed Michael. To truely understand both OS's you'd actually have to use one. I assume Taco has either never actually used an android device or looked at one of the cheap low end devices. You can't expect to put ICS on a phone with a 600mph processor and only 200 some mbs of ram and then expect it to run smooth and fast. JUST not going to happen, that's not googles fault and it sure isnt android's. The device was designed for certain versions of android. OG Droid was designed for android 2.0, Droid X 2.1, etc etc etc. Two factors come in to play to affect how well or poorly an update does to the device. How powerful is the processor and ram? And if the OS is running on a different UI(Motoblur, Sense, Touchwiz, etc) That's not android's fault if the update screws up the device and makes it buggy and laggy. It's who made the device and uses a different UI on top of it. Basically if Google forced everyone to use thesame specs and did not allow any kind of customer user interface then a lot of these problems wouldnt exist. HOWEVER, Android is and has always been an open source system and it's worth these problems old devices had to begin with. It seems like they will at least make a requirement for ICS and hopefully limit the custom ui on future devices to prevent bugs and prevent slow updates. But still in the end remain as a open os.

74. KingKurogiii

Posts: 5713; Member since: Oct 23, 2011

i never had any problems with my X until Gingerbread. i guess i've had much better luck with Motorola. i'm like Motorola's chosen one. xD


Posts: 3131; Member since: Jan 12, 2010

I had the OG Droid when it first came out. Loved it on 2.0, works flawlessly. 2.1 came and it went to hell, no different from 2.2 Droid X the same thing. It was AMAZING on 2.1, then 2.2 came and it went to hell. 2.3 helped make it less laggy but the bugs remained. Seems like you should ONLY use the phone you have with the current version it runs to avoid problems lol.

86. ayephoner

Posts: 858; Member since: Jun 09, 2009

guys, i have an X that i want to sell soon. i'd like to get the official GB update, but it wont show up on my phone. i have it rooted, but no roms. did the update not roll out 100%? is there something i can do to get the official update?

93. KingKurogiii

Posts: 5713; Member since: Oct 23, 2011

go to best place to sell Android devices.

94. ayephoner

Posts: 858; Member since: Jun 09, 2009

im going to sell locally on craigslist. i would like to have gb as a selling point though.

96. KingKurogiii

Posts: 5713; Member since: Oct 23, 2011

you can get that sold for a much better price on Swappa. i sold my Droid X with a car mount for 400 something dollars in August.

98. protozeloz

Posts: 5396; Member since: Sep 16, 2010

if your phone is rooted you wont see ota, but the good old cable might help out, otherwise just remove root

101. ayephoner

Posts: 858; Member since: Jun 09, 2009

removed the root, rebooted, still wont recognize the need to update (says OS is up to date).


Posts: 3131; Member since: Jan 12, 2010

Nailed it. I don't have a problem with Taco, I respect his loyalty to Apple but some of the others I really can't stand.


Posts: 3131; Member since: Jan 12, 2010

You are either pro apple with these guys or you are against them. There's no middle ground, in between. You can't like both, you can only love apple and never question or discredit apple.

88. Dark4o90

Posts: 205; Member since: Feb 20, 2011

sooooo blinded in every article hahahaha :D:D:D

4. KingKurogiii

Posts: 5713; Member since: Oct 23, 2011

"We here are burdened with knowledge." omg i know just what you mean. xD good article Michael. something else i noticed with Android updates is that sales are a factor too. i mean why devote time and resources to a small group of buyers? that's a lesson i unfortunately had to learn the hard way with the Motorola Devour. when i was in the market for my first smartphone i really wanted one with a good keyboard because of the Touchscreen woes i had with the LG Dare and so it ultimately came down between the Droid and the Devour and i decided on the Devour because it had a much better build quality, (damn thing was a tank) a better keyboard plus i thought it looked better and being that they both had the same processor clock speed, same amount of RAM and Internal Storage (i had limited knowledge of mobile SoCs then) i thought the Devour was sure to get the Eclair update. wrong! it was to be left on Android 1.6 for the rest of it's life. it was a good phone, i liked it a lot but i couldn't deal with being stuck on Cupcake so i was able to get a Droid 2 warranty replacement. moral of the story: always go for high-end, vastly marketed phones.

6. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

That's another big reason why the Nexus One isn't being updated. It never had that many users to begin with, and most who own it are the people who update either every year, or every two years on a strict schedule.

14. snowgator

Posts: 3621; Member since: Jan 19, 2011

Very good post King- as usual. I am really starting to look for your name when I read the comments section. Excellent and detailed article, Mr. Heller - as usual. I forgot to give you props when I posted. Phone Arena is lucky to have you. A slight bonus should be awarded for your abilities, I think....

19. protozeloz

Posts: 5396; Member since: Sep 16, 2010

don't know if you know but KingKurogiii is trump3r *plays the cue music*

25. KingKurogiii

Posts: 5713; Member since: Oct 23, 2011

xD Trump3r? lol it was Thump3r. you know the Rabbit from Bambi.

31. protozeloz

Posts: 5396; Member since: Sep 16, 2010


24. KingKurogiii

Posts: 5713; Member since: Oct 23, 2011

thanks snowgator. i appreciate your posts too. (: it's true. you've known me all along. i'm Thump3r. i decided to make a new account.

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

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