Today, Google and Qualcomm announced what seemed like a big improvement to updates for Android smartphones. The headlines (ours included! We were confused, too) largely read as though Android phones with Qualcomm chipsets would now receive "four years" of Android updates, an additional year on top of what manufacturers like Google and now Samsung have offered on their top-tier smartphones. Except, that's not actually what it said.

After speaking with both Google and Qualcomm (and chatting with AP alumnus Ron Amadeo), I received confirmation of what I suspected was the point of confusion about today's news, and that, in fact, very little is changing if you have a Google Pixel or high-end Samsung smartphone. Currently, Google and Samsung both offer three major OS updates on their well-known smartphones. Today's announcement from Google and Qualcomm does not add to that figure. Instead, the announcement merely makes policy what has long been an optional extra for smartphone OEMs who work with Qualcomm, and does not actually "extend" the lifespan of Qualcomm's highest-end chipsets in a meaningful way.

If you're confused, I empathize. But Qualcomm and Google kind of hid the ball on this one in a way that was really, really easy to miss, and which most people (including me) didn't spot at first glance. Here's what's actually changing:

  • Qualcomm will support three major Android OS updates for its entire portfolio of smartphone chips going forward, starting with the Snapdragon 888
  • Smartphone OEMs will likely be able to now offer four full years of Android security updates going forward (based on our reading of the announcement)

That's it! So, where does all that "four years" and "four Android OS versions" business come from? It's really just a very generous marketing explanation of what was already the policy for Google's Pixel phones (and, again, now many of Samsung's), and it's a tad misleading. Right now, Google's Pixel phones get three years of Android OS and security updates from the time they are released. That means around 36 months of security patches and three major platform updates. Under the new system from Qualcomm, that could be extended to 48 months of security patches, but it would still be just three major platform updates. Neither Google nor Qualcomm is promising more major platform updates for high-end Android smartphones, they're only saying that all Android smartphones with Qualcomm's chips from the newly-announced Snapdragon 888 forward will be eligible for three major platform updates and, as far as we can tell, four years of security updates. As for the four versions business, Google's own slide from today's announcement makes clear that this includes the version of Android the phone shipped with. As in, your phone will, over its lifetime, run four versions of Android: the one it came with, and three subsequent platform updates.

Right now, as we confirmed with Google, smartphone vendors are already free to work with Qualcomm on a case-by-case basis to receive support for their handsets beyond Qualcomm's officially-promised support lifetime. The Snapdragon 865, for example, is technically only supported up to Android 12 (Qualcomm's current commitment for its chips is just two major platform updates), but given Samsung has promised Android 13 will come to the Galaxy S20 series (which uses the Snapdragon 865), that means Qualcomm will be supporting the chip through Android 13 for partners who want to provide that update. Today's announcement doesn't have anything to do with that, it's just that Qualcomm is saying it will no longer require OEMs to participate in special partnerships to support their phones for that extended three platform update window.

None of this means that every phone will now get three major Android OS updates, either. It's still up to the manufacturer of the smartphone to provide those updates. It also doesn't mean that Qualcomm will stop inking special deals with vendors to increase the chipset support window beyond what it officially commits to with its partners. There is a non-zero possibility that Qualcomm could now provide up to four major platform updates on a case by case basis if its customers ask for it. But nothing about today's announcement guarantees or even implies that is what will happen, it's just a guess.

The biggest takeaway from Google and Qualcomm's news is that now more than ever, it's incumbent upon smartphone makers themselves to update their phones. Whether it be a $150 budget handset or a $1500 flagship, Qualcomm and Google have laid bare that, going forward, there's no real excuse not to give your customers three Android OS updates and (very likely) four years of security patches. That's great news! But unfortunately, neither Google nor Qualcomm has said that your phone is now going to get four major OS updates. It could happen, but today was more about cementing what was already an off-the-books policy — and maybe getting your phone some more security updates. Nothing more, nothing less.