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Do Frequent Phone O/S Updates Make Sense?

Posted by tomwiles at 1:01 AM on August 18, 2010

I’ve had my HTC Evo for a couple of months or more at this point. When I first turned it on, there was an update waiting. The update installed. So far, so good.

Over the next few weeks I heard there was another update available, but it turned out there was a problem with the update. It took HTC and Sprint about a week or more to fix the problem update, but since the Evo was still in very short supply, I chose not to update it right away. What if there was a problem with the update and it bricked the phone? How would I get an immediate replacement? Better to wait.

A few days ago, Sprint and HTC started releasing the “Froyo” or “Frozen Yogurt” Android 2.2 update for the Evo. I decided it was time to take the plunge and accept the update.

There were two updates. The first one downloaded and installed, and then the second. No problems.

Now I’m asking myself, did the upgrade to Android 2.2 live up to all the hype? Android 2.2 on the Evo might be a little bit more snappy, but it’s hard to tell since the Evo already had excellent performance with the version of Android it shipped with. There are a few changes here and there that improve usability, some of them somewhat worthwhile, but was it really worth the trouble? The phone was a great device before the update. It’s a great device after the update.

Are updates to existing smartphones enough reason for consumers to get really excited over? As I see it, if lots of new basic usability and reliability can be added with a particular update, then it’s likely worthwhile. Smartphones are still evolving devices.

It seems to me that the job of adding new functionality to smartphones falls primarily to apps, and not necessarily the operating system itself. The operating system should be a stable, functional platform that offers basic functionality and services to those apps.

Once smartphone operating system design begins to mature however, the danger of updating and changing things just for the sake of change is always a potential risk. Also keep in mind that on average people replace cell phones about every 18 months, which is a much more frequent replacement cycle than desktop and laptop computers.

In the realm of desktop computer software, Microsoft Office is a great example of mature software design. There are only so many things word processing software can do. Microsoft Word and Excel both had good design and usability for me starting way back with Office 95. With subsequent releases, Microsoft seemed to sometimes arbitrarily change things just for the sake of change, which is a huge usability mistake. Computer software design is not the same as car styling design.

One Comment

  1. From HunterA3 at 5:01 am on August 19, 2010

    There are a number of reasons why smartphones, especially Android phones, are updated on a frequent basis. Anyone still carrying a HTC Hero, or Samsung Moment, can tell you that the bugs fixed by the leap from 1.5 to 2.1 was a vast improvement to even basic usability of the device. Nightmarish scenarios of users on sensitive calls suddenly finding themselves on speakerphone in a crowd of people, or on important business calls and they suddenly were muted without notice and lost a deal with a client, or users that were idly walking around unaware that their phone was “butt dialing” random people in their contacts list or call log even with the screenlock on.

    Let’s also not forget that the Android OS is a flavor of Linux and anyone that uses a Linux desktop on a regular basis will tell you that you can have multiple updates per day/week/month to address flaws and security holes found in the base code–including the kernel. Perhaps the upcoming Windows Phone 7 line of phones will release patches and updates on a scheduled basis. This is something Microsoft, and its user base, has grown accustomed to. Linux variant, on the other hand, will still push things out once patched.

    The frequency that you receive those patches are largely based on when the carrier gets around to testing it and providing to their customers. Sprint, in particular, learned a hard lesson with previous Android handsets in that these phones are hand held computers and when something is broken, their customers demand action or will go elsewhere. Feel fortunate that you bought the flagship phone and that they are showing the will and ability to address issues found in the OS and keep it fresh as long as you want to keep it as your current handset. It wasn’t that long ago that they made promises month after month to push updates, only for nothing to materialize, and users were stuck in limbo with broken smartphones and expensive contracts.