• A Tale of Two OS Upgrades - iOS vs. Android

    android version shareLets face facts here for a minute - the thing that makes your smartphone "smart" or your PDAPhone a "PDA" is the software that is running on it. More and more the best PDAPhones are built on a candy bar design with minimal buttons, a large touchscreen that fills the face, and a thinner and thinner body. So laying on a table while turned off, there is very little to differentiate them. So its all about the software... the OS that runs the platform and gives it the intelligence that separates if from every other phone with similar hardware. It is true that the specs get better and better with new hardware... a few more megapixels on the camera or a few more bits of resolution on the display... but those are usually slow incremental changes. More importantly, you know that the hardware you buy is not upgradable and so you live with that. The OS, on the other hand, can be changed and users expect this to happen. Many new and exciting features can be delivered simply by an update to the OS. Remember the ever important "copy and paste" that the iPhone lacked at release in 2007... well now its in those phones if the users upgrade the OS. And in the case of iPhones users, most of them did... but Android users have not been so lucky with their upgrades due to an arduous upgrade process that is nearly identical to the process use with Windows Mobile phones in the past.

    Lets start with a quick overview of how Apple does the upgrade process for its platform, iOS. Apple has an advantage in that it only allows its OS to be run on its own hardware... and Apple has very conservative and incremental hardware updates on a predictable annual cycle. This keeps the number of hardware platforms they support with in reason and allows them to very specifically address backward compatibility. This is nearly identical to the way it has done Mac updates for years and remember that iOS is just another version of OSX under the covers so it makes perfect sense for them to do it this way. Most users expect Apple to announce new versions of its OS at the same time every year, and the only question is what it will contain in feature enhancements. There is never really too much thought about if, or when, they will get their hands on it. Apple announces it, and they layout exactly which features will work on older hardware. They also give the exact date that it will be available for download... usually within a week or two. Apple has already done all the work behind the scenes to make sure that it works... testing everything on its hardware... and testing wireless functions as well. Its painless and it "just works". As a result, most iPhone users immediately update to the latest version of iOS immediately. The same is true for iPod and iPad users as well. Owners of iOS devices are usually plugging into iTunes pretty regularly, and iTunes will see the update automatically and prompt the user to load it.... so there is nothing they have to really think about here.

    Now how does that process compare for Android device owners? At the OS development end, I'm not sure things are all that different. Just like Apple, Google has an army of developers busily working on the next latest and greatest version of their OS. They even give them tasty dessert code names to entice users even further into wanting them (as if they weren't already enticed by the features they add to already purchased hardware). But once a new release of Android is developed by Google, the OS is not ready for use and it is not up to Google to finish it. Two critical steps are left undone by Google, and more importantly out of the control of Google. To steal the dessert metaphor, Google baked the cake but they are not going to put the icing on, and they are not going to add the lettering, the candles, etc. That is up to the OEM maker of the device, and the carrier to work out... two entities that have no incentive at all to make it happen.

    To dig deeper into the root of the problem, we only need to follow the money trail. Apple owns their ecosystem. They make money for selling new iDevices like the iPhone, and they also get residual income from apps. Better apps rely on a better OS to run them on... with new features that can be built into the apps. The OEM hardware makers of Android devices have no ecosystem. They get paid by selling new devices... period. If they upgrade an old device with features of the latest Android OS, then the user is much less likely to want to buy a new device. They actually hurt their own sales and revenue stream by updating the OS in an older device. The carriers also get nothing out of upgrading older devices. They get residual revenue from devices and measure their business on new subscriber growth. Again, if they upgrade an old device that a user already has, they have to increase their support cost for multiple instances of the same hardware while getting no incremental subscriber income. Both the OEM and the carrier would prefer to let old devices die and sell new ones to their customers. That has been their model for years and now nearly a decade of PDAPhone / smartphone experience has not changed it.

    This fragmentation of versions of Android in use, and the exponential growth of hardware is a big problem that only Google can fix. I don't really see Google addressing it. Since they are not getting revenue from selling Android either, then they are not really motivated to take the necessary steps to correct it. It would require them to take much more control over the process, and one of the main selling points of Android to the OEMs is that they can tailor it to their liking and differentiate their products from the next guy. At some point as the market grows, all the hardware starts looking the same. Look at the Windows PC market today.

    So what does this mean in real numbers for Android vs. iOS users. We discussed this a bit last week in Who Can You Trust to Upgrade Your Android Device? . This week we sourced data on Android version share from Android Developers and data on iOS from a discussion at Quora, by Dave Lieb, the founder of Bump. The data from Dave Lieb is consistent is actually more conservative than what I remember Jobs touting at various Apple events, so it should be reasonable for this comparison.

    The only way to truly analyze this is to line up the version release dates since point releases mean different things to different platforms. As I mentioned earlier, you can pretty much guarantee that around June of each year there will be a major update to iOS and that it will be available shortly after to iOS device owners. Anything in between are minor tweaks and updates. Point releases on Android bring big changes. So looking at the chart below, we see that over half of iOS device owners are on the latest release available, which has only been out for 2 months, compared to 0.4% of Android device owners (the latest Android release is about 2 weeks newer, but this would likely make little difference since a majority of iOS users downloaded their latest release within a few days of release). Looking deeper, you see that over half of Android user are on a release that is 8 months old... an eternity in PDAPhone time. Worse yet, 47.8% of Android users are running a release that is AT LEAST 15 months old. In contrast, 80.5% of iOS users are on a release that is 4 months old or newer, with the majority being less than 2 months old. Its important to note that if iOS users have not upgraded, it is not because they can't. There are 160 million iOS devices out there including iPhones, iPads and iPod Touch, and some users just may not want to upgrade for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that they have a Jailbreak in place or they just don't see a need at this point.

    iOS Version Date
    Android Version
    4.2 11/10 53.0% 2.3 12/10 0.4%
    4.1 09/10 27.5%
    4.0 06/10 9.3% 2.2 05/10 51.8%
    3.2 04/10 0.7%
    2.0 10/09 35.2%
    3.1 09/09 9.3% 1.6 09/09 7.9%
    3.0 06/09 0.3%
    1.5 04/09 4.7%

    So what does this mean for the Android users and market in general? First off, we need to keep in mind that there are many different iterations of each of these releases that are tweaked for a particular hardware product to provide them differentiation. Added with the lagging upgrade, this is a problem for developers. With iOS a developer can safely cut off support for older versions and concentrate on bringing new features to the mass of users... which means more upgrades and newer apps for iOS in the long run. If a developer builds a new Android 2.3 feature into their app, the majority of users won't be able to run the app or use the feature. This is frustrating for the developers but even more frustrating to users. Meanwhile, iOS users don't give upgrading much thought.... it just works.