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 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.
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.
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.
For Apple, that line needed to be pushed forward a bit with the introduction of multitasking. Apple has always chosen when and where to introduce new features, and the timing of those iterations has often angered some, but multitasking was one of the few features that required a good amount of extra resources. Apple prepared its ecosystem with the iPhone 3GS, which boosted the RAM of the iPhone and allowed multitasking to be implemented in the next generation. So, we wouldn't be surprised if Apple pushed a feature in iOS 6 that really took advantage of the new dual-core processor found in the iPhone 4s, perhaps even true multitasking which used the power of a multi-core CPU to run intensive apps in tandem. Apple has also made a good choice in this regard to push the standard release window for the iPhone from June/July to October. Because, if it does make that push next year and leave out iPhone 4 users from the benefits, AT&T iPhone 4 users almost all be ready for, or past the time for, the upgrade, and Verizon users will be close enough.
The decision then becomes when exactly you need to have the new features. For both Android and iPhone, the fall seems to have become the time for the big updates. Apple has moved its iPhone release to October, and is likely to keep it there, and Google has targeted November for its Nexus releases, while other Android manufacturers in general tend to target the holiday season with big releases anyway. This means that buying a new iPhone in the summer is likely a bad idea. But, overall with Apple, it depends on which side of the iteration you want to be on. The best time for performance boost through hardware iteration has tended to be on the odd years (aka the 'S' years,) and the major software features come with the even years (aka the plain number years). Although, there are persisting rumors that the next iPhone will have a quad-core CPU, so Apple may be bucking that trend.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.