Edit: Mere days after posting this (and unrelated to this post), Google publicly apologized for the Android 6 roll-out delay and pushed out Android 6.0.0 to Nexus 6 devices. They then followed that up extremely rapidly with the Android 6.0.1 update. I think this bodes incredibly well. Project Fi is still a very new service, and I’ve little doubt that Google has to work out some kinks of their end. For the moment, I’m going to take a step back, watch, and see if this new rapid update cycle is the new norm. If it is, I think I’ve found my ideal carrier and platform. But I still think that encouraging new users to stick to iOS until this update cycle is proven is probably the best course of action.
I want to make clear, right up front, that I am absolutely not an iOS apologist. I couldn’t wait for the first Android phones to come out, and I bought a Motorola Droid on launch day. I was excited about its better multitasking, about the keyboard, about the better integration with Google services, about the fact that I could use Java instead of Objective-C,1 about the much more open platform that wouldn’t restrict what I wanted to do. I was very sincerely excited.
But neither the hardware nor the software were quite ready at the time. I went through three Droids, suffering one (thankfully warranty-covered) hardware failure after another. After an initially promising update cycle (the Droid was upgraded to what I believe was Android 2.1 very quickly), I began to see that Google was having issues getting new versions of Android out on a sane schedule. So, after a couple of years of living on the Android train, I hopped off and grabbed an iPhone.
That didn’t mean I gave up on Android. If anything, I was pretty confident that Android, not iOS, would be the winner in the end anyway. Google would figure things out—and it wasn’t even just Google, after all, but a huge chunk of the telecom industry, all of whom had a vested interest in keeping Apple from dominating, helping them out. We’d seen this play out already with Microsoft and the PC makers versus Apple in the 90s; we knew how it would end, that Android would close the gaps and take over the industry. It was just a matter of time while Google got their operation running smoothly.
While that’s obviously not what happened, both Android software and hardware did markedly improve. There were even a lot of things that Android got first that were genuine usability wins: instant replies from notifications, assistants (Google Now), turn-by-turn directions, cross-application communication, automatic app updates, and more. I ended up buying a Nexus 7 as a tablet, and found that, at least as a developer, it fit my needs a lot better than an iPad ever did.
There was, however, one caveat: Android’s security story. Because Google couldn’t get updates out to its phones on a sane schedule, most Android phones had long-running unpatched security issues. If there’s one thing I think we’ve learned about security over the last few years, it’s that a team that patches early and often is going to be vastly better protected than one that doesn’t. This didn’t bother me too much on my Nexus 7—Google was better about pushing out updates for its tablets than its phones, and at any rate, side-loading the OS didn’t pose any major problems for me on a non-mission-critical tablet—but it kept me from returning to Android phones.
So when Project Fi was released, I signed up immediately. I figured I could finally, finally have my cake and eat it, too: Google generally kept Nexus devices up-to-date, and the Fi pricing model seemed like a huge improvement to me over what I’d been forced to do on the major carriers. What wasn’t to love? I could go back to Android and bid Verizon adieu at the same moment, a great double-win.
That is emphatically not what happened. First, security updates were slow to come out: whereas Apple virtually always has security issues patched well ahead of any disclosure window,2 Google seemed to struggle. When Stagefright came out, I had to wait, just like everyone else, for my patch. And when that patch happened, it was woefully incomplete, so then I got to wait again for a patch to the patch. And then when Android M shipped a month ago, Google left Nexus 6 users—all of whom own a phone that is just barely over a year old at this point—running Android 5.1.1. Yes, you can get M on Project Fi, but you have to side-load (which their support representatives are loudly and actively discouraging in their support forums), or you have to buy a new phone—the exact situation that exists on other carriers, and the exact situation I was trying to avoid.
This is ridiculous. Apple manages to push out updates to all carriers on the same day. Microsoft, which generally brings a vaguely Scooby Doo-like quality of competition to the smartphone landscape, manages to get updates out to all Lumia devices within at most a few days of each other, and also has a very simple system in which any Windows Phone user can opt-in to get Windows Update-style updates ahead of general availability. Meanwhile, on its own cell network, Google has…side-loading, which it’s discouraging.
This just shouldn’t be that hard. And yet, for Google, it clearly is.
So I give up. Apple can keep their products up-to-date across dozens of carriers; Google can’t even keep their own products up-to-date on their own cellular network. If they can’t even make that work, then I throw in the towel.
I suppose it’s possible that my next phone won’t run iOS, but the one I can guarantee you is that it’s not going to run Android.
- I am not trolling. Java, at the time, was a much more pleasant language to work in than Objective-C. You had garbage collection, a better dependency management story, better support resources, and a much larger collection of third-party libraries, and to top it all off, you had Eclipse or IntelliJ instead of a fairly early version of Xcode. Even if Android’s APIs might not’ve been the best I’d ever used, they were, at least in my opinion, just fine. [return]
- “Virtually” is a key word there; they had a couple minor vulnerabilities that were disclosed prior to patch. But we’re talking a couple issues patched after disclosure date versus a spate of major Android ones that stay unpatched for literally weeks or months after disclosure. There’s no contest. [return]