Mister Goodcat

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Tuesday, 4/10/2012 7:50 AM
by Peter Kuhn
9 Comments

A plea for slow

Tuesday, 4/10/2012 7:50 AM by Peter Kuhn | 9 Comments

On the weekend various news sites reported that Windows Phone 8 is now starting to show up in the browser statistics of analytics services (e.g. here on WMPowerUser). To my surprise, this produced some negative reactions and comments. In the above linked article the first response, from a user named Julien, was:

1 year with no update when you play catch up is a joke anyway

And the first reply to that by someone named Arvydas Grušeckas reinforced:

Agreed. Microsoft is super slow. […]

Let's ignore the fact that "one year without an update" of course is far from the truth, and ask: is Microsoft really too slow with updates for the phone? I beg to differ.

To give a more detailed answer to that question, let's take a look at the situation with today's leader in the smartphone market: Android. At the moment, the usage share of different Android version looks something like this, depending on the source you're quoting:

image

The interesting conclusions from this can be drawn when we take a look at the release dates of these versions: 

Android Version

Release Date

2.2

May 5th, 2010

2.3

Dec 6th, 2010

3.0

Feb 22nd, 2011

4.0

Oct 19th, 2011

One thing to note here is that we should somewhat ignore version 3.x completely, as it is targeted at tablets and does not play a role in the smartphone market at all. Still, these are some interesting facts:

  • Although it has been released six months ago (and received four updates since then), Android 4.x has only gained a market share of 2.9%
  • Version 2.3 has been around for 16 months (and received 5 minor updates), yet still 30% of all Android phones still use an older version, in particular 2.2 is still on 23% of the Android phones out there today.

This becomes even more interesting when you analyze the big players and their particular models. German IT magazine "c't" recently has done such an analysis and came to the conclusion that out of the 29 smartphones released by the big five manufacturers between 2009 and 2010 (pre-2.2) for the German market 7 models never received any updates. 17 models were updated once, and only 5 models received two updates. Again: we have seen at least four major updates to Android since then.

Let's face it: this situation is dramatic and extremely frustrating for customers, but also developers. The ongoing fragmentation of the Android market is one of the hottest topics discussed at the moment in the developer community. The big question is, who is responsible for this? End users tend to blame the obvious: the manufacturers of their phones. But is this the whole truth? Of course not.

To understand what it undertakes to update a particular model to a new version of an operating system, one has to understand who and what is involved in this update process:

  1. First of all we of course have the one who releases the new version of the OS (Google, or in the case of Windows Phone it's Microsoft). At this point, everybody wants to have the new version on their phone. RIGHT NOW!
  2. Then there's the manufacturer of the particular phone model. They have to make sure the new version plays well with their hardware. Manufacturers are responsible for providing drivers to particular components that are not part of the core operating system, too. In addition, manufacturers usually also are software vendors and have special apps or other integrated software that is delivered with their phones. The important thing to note hence is that the manufacturer's role is not only testing a new version, but they actually have to produce a whole bunch of software to make the new version work well, too.
  3. We also have the carriers, who are interested in doing sophisticated tests before a new version of any mobile operating system is rolled out; after all, a small overlooked glitch in such a new version can turn into a disaster when it's exponentiated by millions of phones on the same network.
  4. Let's not forget authorities and organizations that are responsible to verify a device is compatible with national regulations and standards like Bluetooth etc. Even if the manufacturer of the OS has done the majority of work for the core system, each device manufacturer may have to go through these validation processes once again if they change parts of the system or add new features – on a global scale.
  5. And finally we have the roll-out process itself. It's simply not possible to deploy an update to millions of phones at the same time, so it has to happen in a manageable phase that – in the worst case – adds another few weeks of waiting for the end user.

All in all, these details sum up to months until a particular update reaches the customer. For Android, the above mentioned IT magazine c't found out that the average time required by a manufacturer to provide an Android update for a particular model is nine months. This is heavily contrary to the fact that Google pushes out a new major version of Android roughly every six months. Naturally one could argue that manufacturers could shave some time off of this by providing more resources e.g. for developing and updating their software, and Google as the OS manufacturer also could help by providing earlier access to updates. The truth however is:

  • The majority of delay is caused by testing and validation by authorities, carriers and other involved parties, which is mostly out of the hands of device manufacturers.
  • The smartphone market is a war – manufacturers are forced to come up with new and even cooler models every few months to not sink into obscurity quickly. Naturally they focus more resources on creating and pushing these new devices to gain attention than to update old models (I'm not excusing that).
  • Developing software, even if it's just updates, is a complex process and cannot be pushed and accelerated indefinitely by throwing more resources at it.

My personal opinion about this is that the only possible solution to the problem is that Google slows down their release cycle tremendously. I'd go even further and say that if Google continues to push out new major versions of Android every six months, the steadily increasing frustration levels of their user and developer base will quickly result in people starting to turn away from the platform altogether.

In the same sense, I think that Microsoft is doing an exceptionally well job with Windows Phone, and I hope that they will withstand the pressure to provide updates faster. My deep conviction is that "playing catch up" requires a slow yet steady process, and not rushing into the same dilemma Android currently has reached. Everything quicker than one major update a year would probably kill off Windows Phone before it has even gained full throttle.

I also think that Microsoft is a lot more clever in their update philosophy. Unlike Google, who apparently only grants other manufacturers access to an update once it has been released for their reference devices, Microsoft has listened to the complaints from their customers and works closely with those manufacturers (and also carriers) to achieve a concerted update schedule so the vast majority of users get their updates more or less simultaneously. This has worked really well with Mango, and I hope it will continue that way in the future.

Thoughts and comments? I'd love to hear your opinion on the topic.

Comments (9) -

I know all WP are capable of running Mango, are there any graphs of the actual distribution of versions in the wild? I think it would really drive the point home on this one.

Hi Jason. There are no official numbers; however you can use the said browser statistics sites to get at least an indication... take a look at this link, for example, and you'll see that WP 7.0 (= pre-Mango) has a market share of ~17%:

marketshare.hitslink.com/.../The-iPad-s-Competition-Still-Small-but-Growing-

Well, people want iOS like updates. And in comparison, Wp7 is severly lacking (I am a Windows Phone dev).

You could shove all of that validation and carrier stuff out the window. Root your droid!

HTC have the right idea. Let the community play with your roms, release the source code for the kernel.

Waiting for a carrier to pass an update? pfffft cant be dealing with that. Its your device put what ever version of an operating system you like on it!

I totally agree. If the manufacturers want to not mess with upgrades them self it will be a lot better if they sell more phones with just Android, not there useless fancy apps and additions.

It is pathetic to ask "Lets slow down evolution, the monkeys can not catch up fast enough"
I have no problem with people that don't want to mess with there phone and OS to wait for updates and stuff.
I just care to buy some decent hardware without the Vendor lockdown for android version and apps.

Waiting for Google for there Motorola move :) Hope there will be some true Android phone soon.

See, that's why I assume Google bought Motorola (besides the patents). It will be able to release phones which update frequently, thus raising the bar for other manufacturers.

One of our biggest headaches as an enterprise is having to vet new operating systems and hardware. We must go through iterations of the processes mentioned above - and these are no small task. We simply do not have the capacity to perform these checks and rewrite user documentation every time there is a new release. Regardless of how much cooler the newer stuff is the average user (not those who haunt these blogs) does not have the capacity to absorb these changes either. Slower is much, much better from an enterprise perspective.

" the only possible solution to the problem is that Google slows down their release cycle tremendously"

This just seems insane. Google is adding capability and responding to (presumably) the market  frequently, while the manufacturers/regulators/carriers are for whatever reason  congenitally unable to do the same. Your proposal: the "only" solution is for Google to stop innovating?

Why? So the figures won't look so abysmal?

You're missing a vital point here: no-one is forcing anyone to match Google's release cycle. You make it sound like the manufacturers are being pushed under by the cost of adopting each new update. But your own figures show that the  manufacturers feel  absolutely no obligation to adopt a given update at all.

They do just what consumers and enterprise have been doing for decades: skip as many OS generations as they want until they feel the benefit of adopting a new one outweighs the costs.

Say, though, that this is a problem. That Android does need to get OS upgrades onto the handsets of its users faster than it is now (I can't actually tell if you are arguing in favor of this or against it, but, well, assuming this is what you're saying).

You point to all the bottlenecks - the regulators, the carriers, the  manufacturer's business and marketing strategy - and instead of saying lets look at ways to innovate these so they can better serve the pace of update adoption, you say we need to choke back technical innovation to the same crawl.

Sorry, but this just doesn't make sense to me.

I'm not saying anyone should stop innovating. Ideally, the frequency of updates is not related to technical innovation at all. Exaggerated: "release half the updates but make them twice as good".

> Why? So the figures won't look so abysmal?
> [...] no-one is forcing anyone to match Google's release cycle.

The main reason is to keep customers (both end users and developers) happy. Of course nobody is forcing anyone to keep up with Google, but Google has a or should have great interest in making this possible if they don't want to disappoint people and drive them away from Android. Even non-techies in my environment start complaining about phones they bought for 500 bucks that don't receive updates after half a year anymore. Maybe those people will just switch manufacturers once (and stick with the underlying system), but if it happens multiple times then eventually they will turn their back on Android.

> lets look at ways to innovate these [bottlenecks] so they can better serve the pace of update adoption

I would agree if there was a realistic chance to achieve great improvements here. There isn't, at least not in the near future and also not in the midterm. For example, according to a Sony spokesman a manufacturer has to go through validation of their devices in up to 80 countries - each one separately. There's just no chance to quickly improve that situation on a global scale. Maybe in a decade or more we'll have smoother processes for that, but until then other ways need to be found to ease this "innovation" (it often really only is marketing) pace.

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