A couple of summers ago, I went to a party hosted by my mom’s best friend. It was one of those languid, casual dos where people show up at various points of the afternoon just to drink some coffee, say hi, and leave.
The age ranges varied between toddler and octogenarian, and like any party, kids were running around while the parents were talking about their kids. And while it was 2017, a year after Pokémon Go had debuted, most of the kids were bugging their parents for their phones — the host’s house was near a Gym and they wanted to band together to take it over.
One of the kids was new to the game, so his dad, who was using an ancient Android phone — some mid-range LG from what looked like 2011 or 2012 — hadn’t downloaded it yet. Being the resident tech expert in the room, he asked me for help, and after waiting for entirely too long for the Play Store to load I quickly determined that his phone just wouldn’t run the game. He was running a phone with Android 2.3 Gingerbread (which was impressive in its own right). I had a confused, sad kid and a father facing the prospect of dealing with that situation for the rest of the afternoon.
I recalled this sad tale after reading Niantic’s tweet “encourag[ing] you to update [your] operating systems to Android 5 or above for uninterrupted access to Ingress and Pokémon GO,” starting July 1. The company is cutting off access to the ultra-popular games for around 7% of the Android user base, according to the latest Android Distribution numbers released in early May. That may not seem like a large swath of the population, but with more than 2.5 billion, it’s quite significant.
People who read this site on a regular basis know that it’s not so simple to “update [your] operating systems to Android 5,” as Niantic points out. The obvious response is that Android 5, known as Lollipop, was released in 2014 and that it’s long been supplanted by Marshmallow, Nougat, Oreo, Pie and, soon, whatever weird treat Q is named after. Delicious. If the phone you’re using hasn’t received an update beyond Android 4.4 KitKat as of June 2019, it’s never going to. No “likely” needed.
Niantic should know that it’s not possible for the average person to just update their Android phone to a new version. But if they didn’t, it’s not entirely their fault.
But the average Android user doesn’t necessarily know that to be true. For the person who walks into a carrier store and gets the cheapest thing (which still happens more than you think), the Android version is about as important as the speed of the Snapdragon or MediaTek chip powering it (read: not at all).
On the other hand, like that frustrated father who just wanted to let his kid play Pokémon Go and couldn’t understand why his phone, which “still worked perfectly fine,” as he told me, couldn’t even open the game, Android versions and minimum system requirements are still a pervasive problem.
Google’s expended a lot of energy of the past few years trying to alleviate the issue, by backporting Android libraries so developers don’t have to cut off access to essential features; and by exploring solutions, like Treble, to encourage phone makers to offer at least one, if not two, platform updates, throughout a device’s life cycle. While most Android phones, even Google’s own Pixel lineup, still pales compared to the software lifespan of an iPhone — the iPhone 5 received six years of platform updates — the iPhone 5s, released in 2013, received five years of iOS updates before being cut off this year with iOS 13 — with two to three years of support.
Every recent iPhone has received at least four years of new iOS versions, but more importantly, they’re easy to discover and all arrive at the same time.
Things are better, but they’re not perfect. But the reason I’m even thinking about this isn’t to crap on Android and its purported lack of software updates, but to reinforce a truth about the ecosystem: that many people have no idea they’re even available. We at Android Central get emails on a near-daily basis from people complaining that their phone either hasn’t received an update they need for a particular app to run, or conversely, complaining that the update they didreceive (usually from Samsung users) has ruined their phone and this feature they relied on has been changed, moved, or removed entirely.
Because Android platform updates are not predictable, people who don’t examine their smartphones beyond the very basics often don’t know they want them, or what to do when they appear. Only a handful of manufacturers have implemented Google’s Seamless Updates feature, too, so even if an update does automatically download the notification sits in the pull-down tray until it’s activated. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to manually install updates on friends’ and relatives’ phones, some of which had been sitting there for weeks or even months.
Android updates have always been fraught, but most of the time, discovery is as much a problem as availability.
The point is that Niantic’s innocent tweet opens up a larger conversation, not of updates themselves or how many a phone gets over its lifetime, but over their language. iPhone users don’t have this problem — their phone either will get the next major update or it won’t, and in the meantime, it’s guaranteed to get all the dot bumps throughout the year.
Unless your phone’s made by Google or runs Android One (and even then it’s not always consistent), that cycle plays out differently depending on where you are in the world. Some carriers are transparent, passing the updates from the manufacturers in days of being released. Others are more scrupulous and delay the rollout by weeks or months.
One of the most important announcements Google made at I/O this May was Project Mainline, an evolution of Treble that brings essential system updates into the Play Store ecosystem, bypassing the carrier/manufacturer cycle completely. And while Treble is already having a meaningful impact on platform updates, Mainline automates a process that, for too many people, is still awkward and manual.
Like all things to do with Android updates, the process is never simple, nor clean. But thinking about Niantic’s tweet and the impact its changes will have on not-so-insignificant portion of Android users around the world, it would be nice to know that most of them, upon reading it, would know whether their phone will, in fact, be updated to Lollipop, whatLollipop is, and why, by purchasing the phone they did, they’ll likely never see another update again.
Niantic should have known better; it should, as a company, understand that Android updates don’t just grow on trees. But it can also be forgiven for not entirely understanding the deep-rooted dysfunction of Android’s update legacy, and how, by issuing that blameless suggestion, it was starting a small fire.