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
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:
- Google releases an Android update
- Phone manufacturers check to make sure the update works with their hardware
- Manufacturers releases the update to carriers
- Carriers check to make sure the update works with their network infrastructures
- 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.
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