Android fragmentation is a very real problem; not only does it hinder software developers’ abilities to build and sell apps but, also, raises security issues. In a recent report from Open Signal, we learn that 34.1% of Android users are using the 2.3.3–2.3.7 version of Android, whereas just 37.9% of users using 4.x versions of the operating system, most of whom are themselves using a years-old version of Android. In effect, an incredibly large number of Android users are using very outdated versions of their mobile phone’s operating systems.
It’s easy to blame this versioning problem on the carriers. It’s even easier to blame the issue on the manufacturers. And both parties deserve blame. But perhaps not just for the reasons that they’re (rightly!) often crucified for: I want to suggest that the prevalence of 2.3.x devices in consumers’ hands might have as much to do with consumers not knowing how to update their devices, as it does with updates simply not being provided by carriers and manufacturers in the first place.
Earlier this month I spent some time with ‘normal’ gadget users: my family. One family member had a Samsung Galaxy S2…which was still using version 2.x of the Android operating system. Since February 2013, an operating system update has been available for the phone that would bring it up to Android version 4.1.2, but my family member neither knew or cared that it was available.
They didn’t know about the update because they had received no explicit notice that an update was available, or at least didn’t recall being notified. To be clear, they hadn’t updated the phone even once since purchasing the device about two years ago, and there have been a series of updates to the operating system since purchase time.
The family member also didn’t care about there being an update, because they only used the phone for basic functions (e.g. texting, voice calls, the odd game, social networking). They’re not a gadget monkey and so didn’t know about any of the new functions incorporated into the updated Android operating system. And, while they appreciate some of the new functionality (e.g. Google Now) they wouldn’t have updated the device unless I had been there.
A key reason for having not updated their phone was the absolute non-clarity in how they were supposed to engage in this task: special software had to be downloaded from Samsung to be installed on their computer, and then wouldn’t run because the phone’s battery had possess at least a 50% charge, and then it took about 3 hours because the phone couldn’t be updated to the most recent version of Android in one fell swoop. Oh, and there were a series of times when it wasn’t clear that the phone was even updating because the update notices were so challenging to understand that they could have been written in cipher-text.
Regardless of whether it was Rogers’, Samsung’s, Google’s, or the tooth fairy’s fault, it was incredibly painful to update the Android device. Painful to the point that there’s no reason why most people would know about the update process, and little reason for non-devoted Android users to bother with the hassle of updating if they knew what a pain in the ass it was going to be.
The current state of the Android OS ecosystem is depressing from a security perspective. But in addition to manufacturers and carriers often simply not providing updates, there is a further problem that Android’s OS update mechanisms are incredibly painful to use. Only after the significant security SNAFUs of Windows XP did Microsoft really begin to care about desktop OS security, and Google presently has a decent update mechanism for their own line of Nexus devices. What, exactly, is it going to take for mobile phone manufacturers (e.g. Samsung, HTC) and mobile phone carriers (e.g. Rogers, TELUS) to get their acts together and aggressively start pushing out updates to their subscribers? When are these parties going to ‘get’ that they have a long-term duties and commitments to protect their subscribers and consumers?