Primetime: We Need Regular Software Upgrades

Google released the in-service Android platform version numbers a few days ago and Android Nougat, both versions 7.0 and 7.1, is the least popular version of Android stretching back to 2.3 Gingerbread. This time last year we saw something similar with the then-latest version of Android, 6.0 Marshmallow, only running on 0.7% of devices. Today that figure is at almost 30% but the most popular version is Android Lollipop, now two years old. In other words, in a year of ongoing software development and improvement, and of Google encouraging manufacturers to adopt the latest version of Android and apply regular monthly software patches, the market is in the same position with less than 1% of today’s devices running the latest version of Android.

Why is this? There is not one easy answer but one of the main reasons is because handset manufacturers (and carriers) are more into selling customers a new device than developing existing devices. They believe that customers want a bigger, better screen, a camera with more megapixels, bigger batteries and all manner of new features. It’s often a wasted effort: many customers upgrading from a two or three year old device are getting devices with features they did not know they needed. How many flagship Samsung Galaxy owners realize that their device has a heart rate monitor and regularly use it? From a customer perspective, the release of newer devices makes older handsets obsolete - especially when manufacturers drop software support for the older handsets.

Manufacturers quickly forget about their older devices as they concentrate on the more recent devices. Some manufacturers diligently update their old devices for a couple of years - Google is between two to three years for the Nexus family of devices - and then support is dropped. Other manufacturers cease support for a given device with a reason that makes no sense, stating that the older hardware would not be capable of running the newer version of the operating system when the underlying reason seems to be more, “the development teams are busy with this year’s model, sorry.” As Android has matured through the versions, the hardware requirements for newer platforms have been incrementally closer to the older version. We have, however, seen hardware manufacturers cease supporting older components for newer builds of Android, for example the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 and 801 chips do not have official drivers for Android Nougat, meaning large swathes of devices are unlikely to ever be officially updated to the new platform.

Let’s take a look at the Apple iPhone, as this device is often considered when it comes to discussing software updates. Apple updates their older iPhone models to the latest version of iOS alongside the newer phones. Yes, some of the older iPhone models do not get the newer features and in some cases, we’ve seen an older model updated to the newer version of iOS and appears to be functionally and visually the same. However, for the purposes of explaining to the industry that 75% of their devices are updated to the current version of iOS, as Apple does with iOS 10 released last September, it does not matter that older devices are missing some of the new features. They’re running iOS 10. And let us also not forget that Apple’s new hardware has always been a refined variant of the old formula. Hardware change happens slowly in the land of the iPhone; screen sizes and resolutions have only gradually evolved over the years, and Apple concentrate on the software. Yes: Apple have the advantage of complete control over every stage of the process, from designing the chipsets, building the drivers and the underlying operating system. The diagram to describe how Android device manufacturers achieve the same process is considerably more complicated!

Google’s new version of Android, Nougat, has some changes under the skin that should encourage manufacturers to update to the new platform. One of these is supporting Google Daydream, where one of the requirements is for the device to run at least Android 7.0 Nougat. Another is seamless updating, which will make it easier for customers to update their devices. Neither of these solves the issue of the manufacturers needing to develop the software for the old device, of disparate hardware component manufacturers needing to update their device drivers. A great place for manufacturers to start is by adopting and sticking to Google’s monthly update security patch schedule and by coding these changes into their devices as and when they are released. It’s unfortunate that some manufacturers, such as HTC and Motorola, have said that they will not support Google’s monthly security patches.

Why should we care about using the newer version of the operating system on our smartphones? If not for the new features, such as Google Assistant baked into the Google Pixel smartphones, or for the often-promised stability and battery life improvements? No: we should care for running the latest version of the software on our device for the security improvements. Google have been releasing regular, monthly software patches for well over a year now and these are designed to shore up the operating system by removing discovered security vulnerabilities. Remember the Stagefright scare, the horror stories that up to a billion Android devices could be exposed to a critical security vulnerability? This is the security issue that caused Google to start to release regular monthly security patches, which fix up underlying issues in the code.

However, it seems that for the issue of device security to be truly taken seriously we may need for a particularly nasty security event to happen - with perhaps legions of Android devices taken over by a malicious application. Stagefright wasn’t it, although it looks like it scared Google into providing monthly security updates. Until then, the majority of customers aren’t going to care about receiving regular security patches because it’s a “never event.”

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About the Author
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David Steele

Senior Staff Writer
I grew up with 8-bit computers and moved into PDAs in my professional life, using a number of devices from early Windows CE clamshells and later. Today, my main devices are a Nexus 5X, a Sony Xperia Z Tablet and a coffee cup.