Ask LH: Why Are Android Updates So Much Slower Than Apple?

Dear Lifehacker, We usually have to wait for months for an Android update to be released by carriers, yet iOS updates for iPhone are seemingly released whenever Apple posts one. Since this is the case, the traditional "the delay is to make sure the phones can dial emergency numbers" or similar arguments can't really be valid. I was wondering what the real reason behind the different updates is. Any insight? Thanks, Confused By Updates

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Dear CBU,

You ask an interesting question, but one based on a couple of shaky assumptions. The first important point: you can't directly compare the two processes, since Apple distributes updates for iOS for direct download by consumers, while updates for Android (and Windows Phone and BlackBerry) are usually distributed by carriers. This is typical of Apple's processes: as a company, it likes to control every element of what happens. It designs both the hardware and the software and controls what gets released. That isn't what happens with Android, which is an open platform designed to be used on a wide range of phones and tablets.

The Apple approach has some advantages for consumers, one of which not having to wait for a mobile carrier to test and approve the updates. However, it also has some downsides (which aren't always as widely discussed). The key point here is that it's fundamentally illogical to assume that a process managed entirely by one manufacturer can be directly compared with one that involves multiple parties (Google and phone manufacturers) even before carriers get involved.

Having said that, let's look at what actually happens when a carrier tests an Android update. Our night editor Elly Hart looked into this earlier this year when she examined why Australian Galaxy Nexus owners didn't get updates directly from Google. As Elly explained at the time, the typical update process runs through multiple stages:

  1. Google releases an Android update
  2. Phone manufacturers check to make sure the update works with their hardware
  3. Manufacturers releases the update to carriers
  4. Carriers check to make sure the update works with their network infrastructures
  5. Carriers release update to customers

The testing at stage 4 does indeed include checking for whether emergency numbers and other specialisations (such as 13 and 1800 numbers) work, but that's only part of the equation. Mobile network implementations vary around the world, and testing is the only way to ensure that phones work effectively in a given location.

The second dangerous assumption you make, CBU, is that Apple's ability to push out updates independently of carriers proves that this kind of testing isn't required. Actually, we have numerous examples to show that this isn't the case. When the iPhone 4S was released, many users on Telstra experienced major reception issues, with multiple dropouts in a day. There turned out to be a network setting that needed to be changed at Telstra's end. That's something that could have emerged ahead of time if more extensive handset testing (the kind Telstra routinely performs in its secret testing labs) had taken place, but Apple's model doesn't make allowance for that.

More generally, iOS updates often introduce new bugs. When Apple released iOS version 4, performance on earlier iPhone devices was so poor that many users went through a complicated downgrade process rather than put up with sup-optimal performance. More recently we've also seen two separate point updates for iOS 6 to attempt to fix problems with Wi-Fi connections. The key lesson here is that Apple's update process can also introduce performance problems.

The reality is that modern phone operating systems are very complicated, and bugs will happen no matter which platform you are on. Carrier testing is one way of trying to eliminate some of those bugs, but it does create delays which frustrate consumers. The alternative model means that updates are released faster, but can create bugs as well.

If you're tired of waiting for a carrier update, you can always choose to install a custom ROM. The benefit? Newer operating systems. The risk? You're unlikely to get support from your carrier if there's a problem. But whatever smartphone platform you favour, glitches are likely to be part of the journey.

Cheers Lifehacker

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    The problem I find with this response is that how come some hack in their bedroom can release a custom ROM that works fine every carrier in every country, when the big phone and telecommunication companies can't

      Had a Galaxy S2 from Optus, ran the carrier update and it only managed to download 77mb out of 706 of the firmware update but it decided to install it anyway and hey presto, corrupt installation. Took the handset back to Optus and they provided a new S2 and the same thing happened. Optus are terrible at making updates.
      Second time round I flashed over the unbranded firmware and the phone worked perfectly. Carrier modifications to firmware is a joke.

        the carrier doesn't make/bundle/distribute the firmware updates, that's all done by the manufacturer, the carriers just tell the manufacturer what works and what doesn't, and any extra software to put in...

      Who said they can't?

      It costs the carriers money to deploy, test, and release new phone firmware. What do they get in return? Nothing. You've already bought the phone, and you're locked into a contract. You're not going to switch carriers due to firmware, because all of the carriers have about the same track record with pushing out updates.

      In fact they have a vested interest in NOT updating the firmware, as it might entice you to sign up to a new plan with a new 2 year contract in order to get that new phone with 4.2....

      This is why phones sold directly by the manufacturer is a good idea (or sold by a store, but either way cutting out the carrier). It means your relationship is with the phone maker, and now they DO want to keep you happy so that you'll stick with their brand next time you buy a phone (this is apple's strategy).

    "yet iOS updates for iPhone are seemingly released whenever Apple posts one"
    That's fairly open ended there Angus!

    Last edited 21/12/12 8:48 am

    Could the teleco companies release the updates with little to no issues straight away? Most likely. But it the event that there are bugs, the repercussions are greater. If "some hack" releases a ROM and you install it and it doesn't work very well, you simply revert to stock or replace it with one that works. If a carrier releases an update with little to no testing, and say emergency calls fail, well that will create a massive shit storm.

    The reason custom ROMs can be updated more frequently is because they aren't so extensively tested. If a carrier stuffs their update up, then it could ruin their reputation etc. If a ROM developer stuffs something up, no biggy, the'll just fix it and re-release it.

      Here's a crazy idea... why don't the carriers get their sticky little hands off the updates and let the manufacturers push the updates straight to the device? I would say bloatware (loaded into the /system partition) is high on the list so seriously, I don't buy the need to "test". If they needed to test the radios, why don't they need to do that for Apple updates? More testing of the bloatwares required IMO.

      Just go to and get your updates, it will be faster and more stable than the carrier/manufacturer ROMs in my experience (on my second Android phone, been using CM since CM6 on the Desire).

        I don't know where you get this idea of the carrier and the manufacturer...the manufacturer does handle all the firmware,the carriers just test it, the manufacturers do push the updates, see the manufacturers let the carriers test first for customer experience. now if an update was pushed by Samsung and broke emergency numbers, then Samsung is at fault. if the carrier tests it and it doesn't work then it gets fixed and Samsung sell more phones. remember Samsung its in Korea, they can't really test our emergency numbers can they?
        Samsung also customise android a lot, so does every other manufacturer, why would they let the carriers have access to it?

    "That isn’t what happens with Android, which is an open platform designed to be used on a wide range of phones and tablets."
    Quite a delusional and misleading statement if ever I saw one. The version (which one??) that ends up on any Google approved phone. There is an open source version of Android, not what's any of your phones though.

    Slightly disappointed that the question had the word manufacturer was omitted from the default question as it changed the underlying purpose to one that attempted to uncover more information on what actually happens in steps 3 and 4 in the update process by carriers (which the link to the Australian Galaxy Nexus question didn't answer). I feel this is important to state as it avoids steps 1 and 2 which is what is usually focused on as well as step 4. If I omitted the word manufacturer then I apologise for wording the question poorly.

    First part of Angus's answer: The reason why I asked this was because I am yet to come across any unlocked android phones that haven't been able to work on a network as a result of a software update which begs the question of why steps 3 and 4 take so long (in the order of months). If something in the build.prop file has been altered to boost the signal then it should be a fairly simple process that shouldn't take any longer than a fortnight to check. I am unsure about exactly how they check 13, 1800 and emergency numbers and how phone calls occur but how can this process take so long? If phones simply make a connection to a cell tower which then forward the call then only the connection would need to be tested which shouldn't take more than a week to be thoroughly tested using test programs to automatically dial the number which then logs and reports any errors. Yes if it didn't work then it could take a significant period of time to update the code to allow this to connection to work but if this occurred with every OS update to every phone then this process would have surely been simplified by now...

    Second part: The reception issues with Telstra is a valid point but if that has only occurred once with only one carrier it shows how isolated these issues are so why would this be occurring with every carrier when any update is issued? Also your point on bugs within the software I'd say is essentially moot as all Australian (and international) carriers wouldn't spend the resources on finding out what the issue was on the phone and then updating it themselves.

    If anything I have said is incorrect then please correct me but I would like to know how this occurs as it is in my nature to try and identify why disparities like this occur.

    P.s. Thank you for creating this article btw. It was fairly informative for those without any knowledge on this issue.

      Also worthy to note that ROMs are in multiple parts, one of which is the modem. Leave that part alone, and I cant' see how the carrier excuse is even relevant.

        Exactly. Been wondering this for a while.

        a new android version is released, manufacturer puts skin on, adds carrier customization...

        what's broken?

        who knows without testing? 4.0.x to 4.1 could be a complete rebuild of the software.

        Optus and Samsung tested about 4 different hardware configurations and 8 different versions of firmware before the S3 4G was finally approved...

        there are so many things that need testing you can't name them all, cell hand-overs, 4G/3G/2G handoff, is the handset accepting messages from the network and acting appropriately? mobile networks sound easy, but regardless of what someone knows, frequency of what it runs at is only a grain of sand on the beach...there is so much.more than that..

    It isn't just the modem. OS security is a factor too.
    The software must allow the phone to be used for emergency calls without being prevented by any lock or security code.

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