Google needs to raise the bar for Android updates again in 2023
Google has long fought for its reputation as a clean and green company that puts a lot of effort into sustainability. Whether it’s the company’s claim to use mostly recycled aluminum for its excellent phones or its efforts to run its data centers on clean energy, the company shows that it’s making a lot of progress. In 2021, Google finally promised to provide five years of security patches to its Pixel phones, including the Google Pixel 7 Pro, but for some reason, the company still outright refuses to offer more than three Android updates — and that‘s been an issue for years.
While we’re in a better place now than we were in in 2020, Google still has a lot of work to do to if it wants to show its commitment to software updates and, by extension, to sustainability.
Surpassed by the competition
Google long led the pack with its three-year update promise, but the company has been surpassed by the competition. With the introduction of One UI, Samsung restructured its approach to software development in an effort to provide a more easily updateable system, as Samsung’s Vice President of Android Framework R&D, Sally Jeong, told us. While it took the company a long time to get to the place it’s at today, it’s now one your best options if you value fast and long-term updates.
Samsung flagships routinely get security patches ahead of Google’s devices, and while Samsung can’t beat Google at full Android system updates, it still comes close. The South Korean company managed to finish the big batch of its Android 13 updates before 2022 was over, which is impressive given how many different Android devices there are in the company’s portfolio — and making Google look that much worse in comparison, updating as few phones as it does.
Even OnePlus, a company that saw better days when it comes to software, has surpassed Google. The company now promises up to four Android version updates and five years of security patches for its flagship phones. While this policy doesn’t extend to the numerous Nord budget phones the company now produces, it’s still a big improvement over the opaque approach OnePlus and many other manufacturers took in the past.
When we take a look at the other side of the fence, Apple has been in a much better position from the get-go. It provides around six to eight years of software updates for all of its phones. If you’re someone who holds onto technology until it isn’t usable anymore, the iPhone is probably the way to go. A brand-new iPhone will get software updates for a longer period of time than its battery will likely last.
Apple has the big advantage of providing both the hardware and software for its products, while the majority of Android manufacturers rely on ready-made processors like the Qualcomm Snadragon 8 Gen 2. This isn’t a bad approach, per se, but it does mean that most manufacturers have less control over how long they can provide updates to their devices than Apple. Qualcomm provides software patches for its processors, and once the chip maker stops doing that, updates get a lot trickier. It’s possible to overcome this hurdle, as Fairphone proved with the Fairphone 2, but it’s not an easy task.
Google is in a great position to lead the Android world
In contrast to many other Android manufacturers, Google is now in a similar position to Apple. Starting with the Google Pixel 6 series, the company introduced its custom silicon solution, the Google Tensor. It has since followed up its first attempt at its own processor with the Google Tensor G2, which resolved a lot of the issues we had with the first generation.
Now, the Google Tensor chip isn’t as custom as Apple’s silicon — it runs on more standard hardware than that solution, and it includes Samsung’s infamous Exynos modem, which played a big part in why the Pixel 6 had poor connection. This and some thermal issues were fixed with the Google Pixel 7 series, and it makes perfect sense that the first attempt at its own SoC might not have been all good.
At this point, the company should look beyond just adding its own chip to its smartphones and its upcoming tablet, though. It’s a great first step towards independence from external factors out of its control, like Qualcomm deciding to discontinue support for one of its Snapdragon processors, but Google has the chance to capitalize on its own hardware much more.
Tensor chips could make it possible for Google to provide the Pixel phones with much longer software updates, surpassing even Samsung with its four years. Google could go straight at Apple, promising to support its Pixel phones for up to seven years. This would give other manufacturers yet another push to provide us with more software updates, and in the end, everyone would benefit from longer-lasting, more sustainable devices.
I realize that providing software support for hardware is much more complicated than just making one’s own processor, and there are likely still many more other dependencies in the background that make long-term support more complicated.
But hey, when Fairphone, a small Dutch company with limited resources, manages to update an Android phone for seven years straight, then surely a multi-billion dollar business can figure it out.
Regulators are getting ready to enforce longer support
Another reason for Google to switch to a longer update cycle is regulation. Following its big USB-C mandate, forcing the USB connector on virtually all phones including the iPhone, Europe is getting ready to push a 3+5 year update policy on phone manufactures. This would mean that companies have to provide phones with three years of software updates and five years of security updates after launch, which sounds like it would serve Google just fine.
However, Google fitting right into this regulation also means that it won’t be able to use its software update policy to distinguish itself from other brands. Even now, the most important Android manufacturer, Samsung, offers a better update policy. When Google is only doing the bare minimum, it won’t even be able to distinguish itself from Xiaomi, Oppo, Honor, and Realme, which are brands that historically haven’t been so great at long-term software support, despite great hardware offered by them.
If this EU regulation comes into place, the only way Google can distinguish itself in the upgrade department is the fact that its phones will always be the first to receive updates. This might be sufficient to woo enthusiasts like you and me, but it won’t be enough to convince the masses who would rather wait a few weeks or even months anyway, in case there are any issues with new releases.
The Google Pixel 8 should offer more than five years of software support
The EU regulation is also aimed at creating a more sustainable phone market, and this brings us back to Google’s sustainability efforts. To reiterate, the company is in a great position to offer more than five years of software support for its mobile products thanks to the company finally starting to own more of the hardware. On top of that, Google could show that it’s really serious about sustainability, beyond the window dressing that is partially recycled hardware components. With the Google Pixel 8, the company could prove that it is the leader of the Android world that it is supposed to be.
In fact, long-term software support is just the bare minimum to a more sustainable approach to the phone market. I could talk at length about user-replaceable components, fair resource sourcing along the full supply chain, and incentives for end-of-life recycling for consumers, but that would be beyond the scope of this software-focused article.