Here's the real problem with Android

I rarely recommend buying an Android phone over an iPhone.

It’s not because the phones are bad. There are plenty great Android phones out there, especially Samsung’s Galaxy S7 Edge, my favourite of the bunch.

My big problem with Android is apparently the same one Google has, as Bloomberg reported this week: Android phone makers are horrible at keeping their devices up to date.

It’s gotten so bad that Google has threatened to shame its Android partners by releasing a list of which ones have failed to issue critical updates to their devices to the public.

This is when Android fans like to shout at me, saying none of this matters. Google does a great job at keeping its suite of apps like Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Now up to date, they say. Older versions of Android work just fine.

But those arguments fall flat when Android phone makers don’t update phones that have been exposed to nasty bugs like Stagefright, which made about 1 billion Android devices vulnerable to hackers. They fall flat when the only way to enjoy cool new Android features is to buy a new phone instead of waiting for a software update that will never come. They fall flat when developers delay their apps because they’re too busy programming for all the fragmented versions of Android in use. And so on.

Today, only 7.5% of Android devices are running Marshmallow, the latest version of Android that came out over six months ago. Compare that to the latest version of iOS, iOS 9, which is on 84% of devices. That’s the real strength of the iPhone. iOS is the best platform for timely updates across all devices, which means your iPhone is always as secure as it can be and developers are incentivized to give you the latest and greatest apps. It’s why the iPhone always wins.

The only way to ensure you get timely Android updates is to buy one of Google’s Nexus phones. They’re amazing devices, but they only represent a tiny fraction of the Android phones in existence. Walk into any store, and you’ll find anything but a Nexus phone.

It’s understandable that Google is frustrated its partners still can’t provide timely updates, but this problem is Google’s own doing. By giving Android away for free and letting any phone maker modify it, Google sacrificed a unified, stable ecosystem so it could steal the smartphone market away from Apple. That was good for Google in the beginning, but bad for you, the user. Now it sounds like Google is having second thoughts about its decision.

There’s almost no chance this problem will go away. Google could start formally licensing Android to phone companies, but that would just make them angry and go hunting for another platform. It could also start building more phones on its own, but then it would end up competing even more with its own partners.

Google is stuck in an impossible situation. And, if you use an Android phone, so are you.

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