One Way Google’s Android is More Closed to Consumers than Apple’s iOS

Developing for smartphones has shown some interesting differences between Android and iOS – beyond the obvious. Android is touted as being “open”, but in reality while the source code is “open”, consumer access system updates is vastly more closed than iOS.

Let’s take the tweakers, modders… and other enthusiasts out of the picture for the moment, as they aren’t the majority of consumers. When Apple releases a new version of iOS, it’s available to all, regardless of carrier. For example, iOS 6 was announced on September 12 and then released to the public on September 19, 2012. iPhone owners did not have to wait for their carrier to remove features, block functionality or install junkware. The OS update was available to all with supporting hardware.

Let’s take a look at another phone – the HTC EVO 3D. My phone. It was Sprint’s flagship Android phone for about a year, and I purchased it within a week or two of its release. It shipped with Android 2.3.3, aka Gingerbread. This version was released on February 9, 2011 – about four months before I bought the phone.

Fast-forward to December 16, 2011 – Android version 4.0.3 aka Ice Cream Sandwich was released. If you were an iOS user, you might think the update would be available within a few days or a few weeks. Android doesn’t work that way.

Android 4.0.3 was released for my phone on July 30, 2012 – over eight months after the system’s initial release. Compare that to iOS’s seven days.

What happened? Well, I had to wait for Sprint to tweak the system. They had to lock things down they’d rather charge extra for, and install their junkware. They also wanted to test it. Fine. However, they took about five months to do this, finally completing it in May of 2012.

Then they sat on it. Sprint released the EVO 3D for use on its pre-paid network, Virgin Mobile. The hardware is identical, they just didn’t release the update to customers who had already bought a phone. They only offered it to those who wanted to buy a new phone – or rebuy the same phone.

Sprint sat on the update for nearly three months while they continually missed their promised release dates, all the while forcing people who wanted the updated OS to buy a new phone.

To developers, allowing carriers to get in the mix and dramatically delay updates poses a problem to development that just shouldn’t exist. It also means the promise of updates to consumers is not being delivered quickly, and sometimes not at all.

Let’s look at some numbers of the last two major smartphone OS releases by Apple and Google:
Android 2.3.3-2.3.7 – February 9, 2011 – Current Distribution 47.4% (as of January 3, 2013)
Android 4.0.3-4.0.4 – December 16, 2011 – Current Distribution 29.1% (as of January 3, 2013)
iOS stats aren’t quite as easily available. I also tried to ignore Chitika stats as they are disputed. David Smith’s stats are similar to other sources I found, and not too much different than Chitika’s, so I’m citing his.
iOS 5.1.x – May 7, 2012 – Current Distribution 15.7% (as of January 7, 2013)
iOS 6.x – Sept 19, 2012 – Current Distribution 78.5% (as of January 7, 2013)

In 13 months, Ice Cream Sandwich has only managed to garner 29.1% of the market, whereas in four months iOS 6 has taken 78.5% (over 87% according ot 14 Oranges) if the iOS market.

Update: Since I took those numbers, Android has changed how they make their calculations.

“Beginning in September, 2013, devices running versions older than Android 2.2 do not appear in this data because those devices do not support the new Google Play Store app. Only the new app is able to measure the number of devices that actively visit Google Play Store and we believe this measurement best reflects your potential user-base.”

This also excludes devices which don’t have the Google Play Store app, like the Kindle Fire. It helps skew the stats towards newer versions.

Even still, take a look at the numbers now:
Android 2.3.3-2.3.7 – February 9, 2011 – Current Distribution 26.3% (as of November 1, 2013)
Android 4.0.3-4.0.4 – December 16, 2011 – Current Distribution 19.8% (as of November 1, 2013)
Android 4.1.x – July 9, 2012 – Current Distribution 37.3% (as of November 1, 2013)
Android 4.2.x – November 13, 2012 – Current Distribution 12.5% (as of November 1, 2013)
Android 4.3.x – August 22, 2013 – Current Distribution 2.3% (as of November 1, 2013)

iOS 7.x – September 18, 2013 – Current Distribution 65.5% (as of November 12, 2013)
iOS 7.x – iPhone Only – Current Distribution 72.1% (as of November 12, 2013)

Android 4.3 released on August 22, and iOS 7 released almost a month later on September 18th. Android 4.3 has a distribution of 2.3% while iOS 7 is over 65%. Even though Google has changed the way the metrics are reported, Android devices still lag very far behind iOS devices.

Delay in updates is part of the issue. Another major factor is that often updates just never come. Michael DeGusta created a great chart to show just how bad the update problem is with Android.


What does this mean?
Android developers are stuck having to offer support for a system that was released over two years ago, whereas iOS developer could easily target only systems released in the last two months (14 months if you wanted to be more generous.) Consumers are stuck without fixes and features that have been available for months – and may never get them without buying a new phone. And as DeGusta notes, “Consumers get screwed. Developers are constrained. Security risks loom.”

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