Android 10 (Q) is available but it could be as much as 7-10 years before all of Google’s Ecosystem devices have this or a later version, meaning that smartphones could be obsolete before this update is complete.
Android 10 became publicly available yesterday (see here) with much fanfare about improvements in productivity and security, but if hardly any of its users have the software on their devices then it is worse than useless.
I say worse than useless because any of Google’s competitors (iOS, other Android forks, Sailfish and so on) can examine Google’s innovations, copy them and distribute them to their users years before Google can.
In effect, Google is doing R&D on behalf of its competitors.
At the heart of this issue is Google’s inability to control the update process on the devices that run its ecosystem.
This is left to operators and handset makers who, in many instances, have no incentive to upgrade their devices to the next version and very often an upgrade is simply not possible.
First, incentive: Handset makers need users to keep on buying handsets to survive.
In the saturated market in which we find ourselves today, this means a replacement sale.
Furthermore, virtually all innovation is now in software meaning that upgrading the software of an exiting device may well dissuade the user from buying a new device.
This, combined with their own tweaks and tinkering is why upgradeable devices often take a very long time to be upgraded if at all.
Second, upgradeability: The market for Android devices is a brutally competitive and is virtually commoditised where there is very little to tell one handset from another at any given price point.
This means that the main weapon (other than cameras at the very high-end) of competition is price.
New hardware features rapidly enter a race to the bottom in terms of price and no one really makes any money.
In order to make a handset upgradeable from one version of android to another (big revisions e.g. version 9 to 10) a little extra memory and storage are required.
This has the effect of raising the bill of materials but the market won’t pay for this increase, meaning that many handset makers can not include these extras in many of their models without a big hit to profitability.
The result is that many Android handsets are not upgradeable from one version to the next which has a significant effect on the pace of upgrades.
Consequently, the evolution of the Android versions within the Google ecosystem (see here) is glacial with almost all of the devices reporting the new version of software being new devices rather than updated devices.
Furthermore, it looks like in the last 12 months, the pace has slowed even further as just 10.4% of all Google Ecosystem devices have software that has been available for a year.
From this one would calculate that it will take 9 years and 7 months for the entire user base to be upgraded to Android Q or later.
If there is another major form factor revision on the horizon (such as AR) within the next 9 years, smartphones could become obsolete before Google manages to upgrade its devices to the 2019 version or later.
This is a significant worsening of the situation from the last time I made this calculation at 5 years (see here).
I suspect that the main reason for this slowdown is the weakness handset market meaning that fewer newer devices are selling thereby slowing growth of the latest version of Android.
This combined with the endemic fragmentation of Android smartphones is the single biggest hindrance to the Google ecosystem becoming on par with iOS.
This problem is getting worse and Google appears to be either unwilling or unable to do anything about it.
This will be music to Apple’s ears as it is Google’s ineptitude that keeps the iOS ecosystem at the top in terms of quality rather than anything special that Apple is doing.
This will help Apple maintain its margins for the foreseeable future making it a very defensive way to sit tight through the uncertainty coming in Q4 19.