According to a Bloomberg article published this morning, Google has been actively tracking the time it takes Android device manufacturers to update their handsets to a new version of the Android OS. Better yet? There are supposedly discussions happening inside Google as to whether or not to make the stats public, as a sort of "name and shame" directive to encourage manufacturers and carriers alike to update their handsets more quickly. To which I respond: oh god yes please, do this, Google.
The report also mentions a few other tidbits that are interesting, and we'll get to those, but let's focus on what I will now call The Android Update Wall Of Shame, which should very much be what it is called if Google does, in fact, publish it.
The issues with handset updates right now are myriad, and manufacturers and carriers alike certainly have their various excuse-shaped PR ducks in a row in the event Google does start publicizing historical OS update speeds for devices. After all, it does take considerable human resources to update a handset and, in America, carriers make certifying those updates a long and expensive process for alleged "reasons." And that's all well and good: some of these excuses are likely perfectly valid, and manufacturers should feel free to, I don't know, maybe share them with us? Wouldn't that be nice?
But in situations where laggardly update performance is a result of simple incompetence or a lack of business or profit motive, these figures could push brands that are notorious for slow or nonexistent Android OS updates into not being so, well, shitty about them. And that's good. It could also create a sense of competition among those brands that are good about updates themselves but perhaps slow to getting them into users' hands (COUGH SAMSUNG COUGH), and encourage them to move a little more expeditiously.
Now, we all know the caveats here: manufacturers "racing" to be first could result in subpar software experiences for users, more bugs, and perhaps less focus on fixing existing problems that may require more devoted attention. My position is that this argument is a red herring - conflating core Android OS updates with the overall software experience is exactly why a company like Samsung gets away with being so slow about them. They can simply point to UX and say, "See, look - we take so long because we want to make it good." To which I say: why must these be mutually exclusive traits? We can't have core Android OS updates come quickly, but also focus on ensuring the end UX doesn't suck? I find that a dubious argument.
Core Android OS updates should be broken out from updating OEM or carrier-specific software experiences - the problem here isn't Google, it's that manufacturers and carriers actively screw around in ways that make things more likely to break when a phone is updated. If your phone has core features breaking every time an Android update comes down the pike, that's probably on you, Mr. Manufacturer, not Google. And that really boils down to manufacturers choosing to do things a certain way, not some inherent universal truth about Android updates. I find it highly unlikely that Samsung is going out of its way after all these years to make Android OS updates simpler to integrate with its own software, for example, because Samsung's smartphone brand identity is so wrapped up in the various features and functions it adds to the OS. Whereas manufacturers like LG and HTC seem to have gotten the memo and substantially sped up their core OS update timeline and, shockingly, they don't deliver horribly broken updates just because they move quickly.
Case in point, the AT&T Galaxy S6 received Android 6.0.1 on May 17th. That was a week ago. The Sprint LG G4, also released in 2015, got its Marshmallow OTA six months ago. Sorry, Samsung and AT&T, no amount of "UX optimization" excuses that travesty - Android N will be out in a couple of months, and I expect we'll see the AT&T S6 get it by, I don't know, February 2017.
Anyway, the rest of the Bloomberg article discusses how in America in particular manufacturers have become utterly hamstrung by carrier update certification processes. Citing one former major OEM employee, Bloomberg claims that every single update certification can cost upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and some take months to complete. Speaking to Sprint, though, Bloomberg found that the carrier had reduced its own certification process from around 12 weeks to "a few." And that checks out: Sprint-branded phones are often the very first to receive major Android OS updates among carrier-branded devices in the US these days, often well over a month, sometimes two, before Verizon or AT&T.
So, I say: publish the damn numbers, Google. At this point, after six-plus years, that's probably the only thing that's going to get manufacturers and carriers to care about this stuff: putting them in last place on a big, friendly chart that will get published on a monthly basis across the internet.