Android fails to keep up with Apple

By Johnny McCabe

Flickr/Kārlis Dambrāns
Flickr/Kārlis Dambrāns

It’s that special time of year again: the temperature begins to drop, leaves begin to swirl in the wind across the streets and walkways of Amherst, the scent of pumpkin spice everything fills the air. Among these seasonal pleasantries, the most recent iteration of Apple’s iOS mobile software is launched to iPhone users. Indeed, September is a time of renewal for iPhone users all across the world as Apple maintains an intensely regular schedule, with iOS updates emerging only a couple of weeks after they are announced at the company’s annual keynote address.

This year, for iOS 9, as my iPhone-toting friends and acquaintances all powered down their devices to update to better multitasking, faster performance and a smarter Siri, I too was able to update my Android phone to Android 5.0, “Lollipop.” It’s a wonderful update that brings many of the same efficiency boosts and quality of life improvements to the user experience as does iOS 9. But unlike iOS 9, I have been waiting for it for almost a year. As the two biggest competitors in the consumer electronics market grow ever closer to each other, the smallest differences are magnified to great importance, and if Google intends for Android to keep pace with iOS, then it needs – quite literally – to get all of its phones on the same page.

Admittedly, the point that I’m making feels like a ridiculous one. Whining about the slowness of software updates is one of the timeless tropes of fan boys and brand warriors everywhere. However, it’s hard to dismiss these quibbles when Apple spends a great deal of time and energy rubbing the fact in Android’s face. At each of its keynotes in recent memory, Apple’s executives gloat about how quickly even the oldest iPhones and iPads receive the newest and best version of iOS, while sadly pointing out that a modest contingent of Android devices still run the same version of the operating system that they did years ago. Just by continuing to do business the same way it always has, Apple can brand itself as fresh, fast and forward-thinking, capitalizing on one of Google’s most persistent failures.

It’s worth mentioning that this isn’t the easiest problem for Google to fix. Unlike iOS, Android is not married to a single hardware platform: whereas Apple has unilateral control over the hardware for which its software is built, Android exists in a constellation of different shapes and sizes, each made by one of dozens, if not hundreds, of different manufacturers around the world. Each of these manufacturers has its own individual interests for what it thinks is best suited to its phone, and as such manufacturers modify their own skinned version of the software. In such cases, the manufacturer would need to review Google’s official update for compatibility before pushing it to its users. Regardless of the level of manufacturer interference on the software level, cell service carriers (looking at you, Verizon) almost always add yet another layer of complexity to the upgrade, delaying official Android updates for no real reason whatsoever. The result is that my 2013 Moto X, a phone carefully designed under the direct purview of Google during its brief ownership of Motorola, only received Android 5.0 Lollipop a week before the launch of Android 6.0 Marshmallow.

These parallel versions of Android can have an extreme impact on the way people use and interact with the technology that influences our day-to-day life. There is no better example than the recent difficulties iPhone-using students have been having with the University of Massachusetts campus wireless network after the iOS 9 update went live. I have had conversations with friends, overheard complaints above the chatter of the dining commons and witnessed grimaces of frustration between classes as passersby struggle in vain to connect. The Daily Collegian ran a letter to the editor on the failings of campus wireless. The fact that everyone is on the same platform means that when a problem arises, a chorus of voices rises up and developers are forced to troubleshoot. A unified platform means unified change.

If, however, my Moto X refuses the Herculean effort of connecting to eduroam, all I can do is send a bug report and hope for the best. The fragmentation of Google’s software platform not only makes Apple look better for doing nothing out of the ordinary, but can actually be a major detriment to users in the long run. If Google wants to keep pace with Apple in the battle of the operating systems they have both worked so hard to create, it needs to start pushing manufacturers and carriers harder on getting their updates out – preferably before next fall.

Johnny McCabe is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]