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Unlike iOS, Android doesn’t need yearly updates anymore
Android 13 is here and will be rolling out to many more devices over the coming months. As I’m currently using the Galaxy S22 Ultra as my daily driver, I’m in for a little wait until Samsung gets around to rolling out all the new bells and whistles to my handset. But, to be honest, I’m quite happy to wait.
Maybe I’m growing grey and jaded, maybe it’s the lack of tasty dessert names, but the arrival of Google’s latest Android OS wasn’t particularly exciting. Neither was the one before that either. In fact, Pie was perhaps the last OS upgrade that I genuinely felt the need to get my hands on urgently, and that was four years ago! The fact of the matter is that Android is a mature operating system where, thankfully, things don’t need to change regularly. Most of the core features are set in stone, while major design overhauls only come along every four or five years.
Many Android 13 improvements could have shipped any time as a 'feature drop.'
You only have to look at the Android 13 feature list to admit we’ve hit a plateau. Auto-theming icons, an updated Now Playing widget, more intuitive QR scanner support, a reworked audio output selector, and a private photo picker are all nice to have but tough to get excited about. These probably all could have shipped in a “feature drop” or minor patch alongside a security update.
With that in mind, Android could probably do away with major revisions altogether, and few would even notice. Or, failing that, shift to a quinquennial cycle to coincide with the next major UI overhaul.
Should Google abandon big-version Android updates?
In some ways, Microsoft had the right idea when it overly enthusiastically declared Windows 10 the last version and switched to regular updates instead. Windows 11 sabotaged that plan, partly for security reasons, but the sentiment was in the right place. Mature operating systems don’t warrant a yearly release and should instead become continually evolving and improving projects.
The death of the yearly “OMG, a new Android version is here” hype cycle is actually a testament to the work Google has done to make Android easier to update. Treble and Mainline have enabled dropping fixes and even new features via Play Services and the Play Store, reducing the need for major OS revisions to keep Android shipshape.
Unlike the iPhone, Pixel owners don't have to wait 12 months for new features, and other brands need to move in that direction.
In some ways, this was the inevitable end-point of Google’s time-honored separation between OS and core user features. All of your favorite Google apps and services, such as Maps or Pay (aka Wallet), have long been updateable anytime through the Play Store, and Google has expanded that principle massively to the point where OS upgrades feel redundant. By comparison, Apple still hasn’t separated most of its key app and user functionality from iOS, so even basic improvements often have to wait for the yearly upgrade cycle. Although the iOS approach gives Apple plenty to talk about at WWDC, this artificial delay is ridiculous from a user perspective.
Google has further embraced the evolving software philosophy with its Pixel feature drops. In many ways, features like ASTROlapse photography, Google Photos Locked Folder, and Assistant phone call answering are more impressive and exciting than pretty much everything that made its way into Android 13. It’s a real boon for Pixel owners that they don’t have to wait 12 months for a new feature, and there’s a tremendous sense of added value for being in Google’s inner circle.
Unfortunately, most other manufacturers are stuck in the old paradigm. Even Apple and Samsung, aside from some experimental features, seldom make meaningful changes to their products in between their yearly upgrade schedules. It’s time for them to break that habit.
Feature and security updates are important, but yearly major releases are archaic.
Obviously, Google won’t ditch Android 14, partly because it plays an important part in the mobile PR machine. Even if it did, an occasional major release would still likely be needed to overhaul the UI, implement support for new hardware ideas like foldables, and make other unforeseen fundamental changes.
See also: The yearly smartphone model is obsolete; software-first is the future
Still, I’d like to see Google downplay the importance of OS releases and continue pushing ahead with regular monthly updates and feature drops, including making new features available to AOSP partners sooner. That might encourage other manufacturers to move towards regular upgrades and longer-term support, and further ostracize the few remaining manufacturers still operating on a sell-and-forget mentality.