Updates Not Guaranteed: Don’t Panic, Nexus Phones Don’t Have Execution Dates
The End isn't Nigh
A lot of the bad press against Android is simple fear mongering. It was around this time last year when Android security was a hot topic, and while so many of us know that a lot of those claims were overstated, the mass media was successful multiplying the worry for Android users.
I fear something similar happened just the other day when Google updated its “Timing for Android software update”. Cue the numerous articles advertising the “End of Life” or “Death Dates” for Nexus phones as the end of the phones themselves, cue the misunderstandings, and cue why I am going to argue that this list needs to disappear.
Android updates are a hot topic, and I don’t think there is a single Android enthusiast who is 100% satisfied with the current situation on Android. Every year hundreds of Android devices are built, some even from reputable manufacturers. However, many if not most fail to ever see proper software support even just a few months out of the gate, and this includes important security updates. It isn’t just budget phones that have this problem. Samsung needs to be commended for getting security updates out for the Galaxy S7 line but fails on getting them out to ALL variants at a timely basis. LG appears to not care at all, and HTC went so far as to remove the ability for the end user to easily see their security patch date, a totally unacceptable practice. Google needs to tweak things on their end as well since it can take 1 or 2 weeks for end users to receive security updates for their device with no on-device option to pull the update manually. While Google has started providing full OTA packages that you can push from your PC this is still not a very user friendly approach — try explaining to your father how to setup ADB and sideload an update.
Many look to Apple devices as the gold standard on how to properly update mobile devices, and for good reason, they do a lot of things right. First, updates push out to millions of phones within hours, and while there is the occasional issue, it normally goes without a problem. Second, Apple sets the high bar for software support timelines with the iPhone 4S only now dropping off software support which will be an almost unprecedented 5 years of support. To equate this to Android it would be like your Galaxy Nexus getting official Marshmallow 6.0.1 and still getting updates instead of dying 1 full Android release before material design embraced our lives. Yes, the Galaxy Nexus never got official KitKat released almost 3 years ago and has never seen a “security update”. While the argument can be made that pushing a new iOS update to an old device deteriorates the customer experience it is still nice to see Apple caring about maintaining older devices. If Android were to adopt this mentality there would be more choice which would allow you to roll-back or decline an update, something that isn’t possible on iOS. Third, Apple provides no sort of EOL or sets any sort of expectation as to when a particular device will stop receiving support. These three things make Apple’s update system something that Android users should be very envious of despite its faults like no roll-back support.
So this brings us full circle as to why I feel Google publishing this list is bad for Android, bad for the community and how we as a community dropped the ball in reporting just what this list is. To set the surroundings this list is posted on the Google Support pages under “Check and update your Android version”. Scroll down most of the page to find “Timing for Android software updates”. Under “Nexus” there is another category called “How long your Nexus will get updates”. To be specific, the first sentence states “After a certain period, Google can no longer guarantee that a device will get version updates or security patches.” (emphasis mine). Beneath this statement are words like “for at least” and “no guaranteed”, indicating not a hard a fast deadline, but instead a guideline that may or may not be followed.
“Imagine how easily the common user could misinterpret this list”
In no ways are the terms “End of Life” or “Death” even implied on this support page but instead is the misunderstanding and misrepresenting what Google is actually trying to do with this page.
Simply stating that a Nexus device can expect to receive updates for 2 years and security updates for 3 years is all Google needed to state, if even that. But putting dates on this list sets an unrealistic expectation of when a device will no longer get updates, to the detriment of the device and Android as a whole. To see this just look at the Nexus 7 (2013) a device that supposedly had its “Death” and “End of Life” on July 2015, a few months prior to the launch of Marshmallow. However, the tablet is still supported to this day with security updates and received Android 6.0.1, an Android version update earlier this year. The same applies to the Nexus 5 which had its “Death” last October. As you can see, this list is not the hard and fast guideline so many proclaim it to be by their headlines, rhetoric, or doomsaying. If so many of us, as Android enthusiasts and sites, got this so wrong imagine how the common user could be mistaken if they stumble on this list.
Google: your expression of transparency is welcomed, but misguided. Take another page from Apple’s playbook, remove the expectation, and set a standard of supporting devices for a few years from release. OEM’s cannot be expected to follow suit, but further separating Nexus devices from the rest of Android devices only makes the Nexus product more appealing. Publishing a list that can easily be misconstrued as a hard and fast date of when Nexus devices will die does a disservice to your devices, especially given you have supported devices past their time. In fact every single Android device on this list “past” its date has received at least 1 more major Android version update after its “death”. So don’t plan a memorial, don’t play the Taps; Nexus devices aren’t going to magically drop dead on a specific date, and they will probably live up-to-date (even if on borrowed time) past its final days, so you shouldn’t base purchasing a Nexus device off this list, ever.
Nexus devices will stop being supported when the customer base using it falls off or the hardware just can’t manage the new software, not some predetermined date of execution, after all these devices aren’t a gallon of Milk.