The OnePlus 5T and Razer Phone are two fundamentally different devices, which are nonetheless united by one unfortunate downside: both of them are going on sale this month without the latest version of Android on board. OnePlus will tell you that this issue is down to its extremely stringent testing process, while Razer offers a similar boilerplate about working as fast as possible to deliver Android Oreo. But we’re now three months removed from Google’s grand Oreo launch, timed to coincide with this summer’s total eclipse, and all of these excuses are starting to ring hollow. Why do Android companies think they can ship new devices without the latest and best version of the operating system on board?
The notorious fragmentation problem with Android has always been that not every device gets the latest update at the same time, and many devices get stuck on older software without ever seeing an update at all. What’s changed now is that the “one version behind the newest and best” phenomenon is starting to infect brand new phones as well. The 5T and Razer Phone are just two examples; there’s also Xiaomi, which just launched its Mi Mix 2 in Spain with 2016’s Android Nougat as the operating system. This is leading to a fractured Android landscape, one where you might get Android Oreo if you buy the new and shiny HTC U11 Plus, or you might get Android Nougat if you buy the OnePlus 5T, which was officially announced less than 24 hours ago.
Many people won’t care to check or even know what operating system version their phone is running. But that’s really part of the problem. When I’m among laypeople, they speak of Android as one coherent whole: “I’d switch to Android, but does it do x and y better than the iPhone?” The mass market consumer rarely differentiates between Samsung-brand Android, OnePlus-brand Android, and all the others. And when a company like Google does a big event telling everyone that Android now has notification dots adorning app icons, faster boot times, better power efficiency, new priority groupings for notifications, and all the other under-the-hood improvements of Oreo, those very same people expect to be able to walk into a store, pick out an Android phone, and have those exact capabilities at their fingertips.
Instead, we have to return to the unhappy chart below, which shows the proportion of active Android devices on each version of the OS. For reference, Android KitKat (13.8 percent) was released in 2013, Lollipop (27.2 percent) came in 2014, Marshmallow (30.9 percent) followed in 2015, and Nougat (20.6 percent) was last year. Android Oreo stands at 0.3 percent as of November 9th. You don’t need to compare this to the proportion of iOS devices that are fully up to date with iOS 11 (52 percent at last count) to know that it’s not a happy picture.
For anyone enervated by seeing the latest iteration of the Android platform chart, all I can say is we’ll keep talking about it so long as it remains pertinent to the experience of buying and owning an Android device.
I have talked with most Android manufacturers over the past few weeks and I’m confident the update problem isn’t complacency. How could it be? Razer is launching its very first phone and trying to make the best possible impression, whereas OnePlus has the fresh memory of nearly going out of business in 2015 after some poor product decisions. The Android device market is too competitive for such a simple explanation.
A partial justification for the latest actions of these companies stems from the maturity of Android itself. The differences between Oreo and Nougat are less noticeable in day-to-day use than the differences between, say, Gingerbread and Ice Cream Sandwich. To some extent, you could make the argument that the majority of people in the market for a new phone wouldn’t feel the absence of the latest software anyway. (Much as, for instance, numerous companies now believe we can live without a headphone jack). And since OnePlus and Razer both have to get their devices into stores and available online during the holiday shopping season, their hands are somewhat tied. They have to release the best possible product they have at the optimal market timing.
Android companies aren’t willing to go on the record with this, but Qualcomm also plays a role in slowing down updates. Its Snapdragon processors invariably grace the biggest flagship devices, and the manufacturers are reliant on Qualcomm quickly supporting the latest OS update too. Not long ago, Qualcomm’s early termination of support for Snapdragon 800/801 chips left a lot of people disappointed. Those were flagship processors for premium devices, but the chipmaker’s decision left owners of such phones without the Android Nougat update that they’d expected or been hoping for.
Google is working hard to reduce the behind-the-scenes complexity that’s inherent in updating Android phones. The Project Treble initiative in Android Oreo is part of that, though for its effects to be felt, we’re going to have to wait a couple of years until Oreo becomes a more substantial proportion of the Android market than the rounding error it presently is. As things stand, Android remains a chaotic and frustrating place to be for anyone who just wants the latest and greatest.
When you buy a new phone, you should be safe in the knowledge that it’s better than all the preceding models. Recent times have rather eroded that expectation, as newer smartphones now lack headphone jacks, many are switching from aluminum to more fragile glass construction, and the Android software situation remains as unpredictable as it’s ever been. Apple’s iPhones are subject to some of the same critiques, but at least Apple gives you the reassurance of knowing you’ll get the next software update. And probably the one after that too. Android phones? You’d better check you’re being the served the freshest flavor before buying one.