As another vendor promises 3 years of Android updates, we ask: How long should mobile devices receive support?
Really, three years should be the bare minimum at this point
Analysis Almost seven months after the brand splashed down in the UK market, mobile maker Vivo is making some bold promises about the longevity of its upcoming phones.
The Chinese company is promising at least three years of software and security updates for selected premium devices introduced after July.
And? It's underwhelming. When it comes to software updates, most smartphone vendors fare dismally. Three years is a decent figure, on par with the Android One programme, although slightly below what Samsung has provided newer Galaxy devices.
But the devil's in the details, or lack thereof. In a spectacularly fluffy piece of marketing*, Vivo avoided the important question of how it'll structure the cadence of OTA patches. Can phone owners expect monthly or quarterly updates? How long will users have to wait between Android system upgrades? We've asked Vivo for clarification.
Vivo was similarly vague about the devices covered by its new policy, which only applies to "selected" premium devices, with other models presumably left at the company's mercy.
More fundamentally, three years of updates is increasingly insufficient to cover the lifespan of a device, which has elongated massively in recent years.
"We have seen the length of ownership for smartphones increase dramatically over the last five years," said Ben Wood, chief analyst at CCS Insight. "On average we estimate consumers are now keeping their smartphones for four years so software updates are more important than ever, particularly from a security perspective."
There are a number of factors in play here. Wood waxed lyrical about improvements in display and camera technologies, which have rendered the traditional two-year upgrade cycle obsolete. Speaking to El Reg, Paolo Pescatore, mobile and telecoms analyst at PP Foresight, attributes the phenomenon to the 5G rollout.
Ultimately, even if you buy a phone with three years of guaranteed support, most people will experience a period when their device won't receive any security. For obvious reasons, that's bad.
Vendors can't be entirely blamed. The Android operating system was conceived without any thought of long-term support. Google left the task of issuing software patches to vendors, who were not held to any levels of long-term support. That situation only changed in 2018, when the Chocolate Factory obligated vendors to provide at least two years of updates.
Compounding matters, Android wasn't really designed to make patching easy, thanks to its initially monolithic design. This original sin has resulted in over a billion insecure devices, as well as chronic ecosystem fragmentation.
In recent years, Google has addressed this through initiatives like Project Treble, which decoupled low-level device-specific code from the rest of the OS. Another strategy has updated system tools and frameworks through the Google Play store, rather than periodic system updates.
And earlier this year, Google and Qualcomm announced a partnership that would reduce the amount of work required of the San Diego chipmaker to support new system-level updates. These modest architectural changes would permit up to four Android versions and four years of security updates, provided the device used the Snapdragon 888 platform or newer.
Wood argues that Vivo's embrace of a longer lifecycle is indicative of an industry-wide recognition that people are holding onto their phones for longer, and will help vendors compete with Apple, which continues to provide software updates to the iPhone 6s, despite its nearly five-year vintage.
"It is notable that Android phone makers have really stepped up in the last couple of years on the number of updates they provide and the period of time they offer support," he said. "It is something Apple has been doing for years and was a significant differentiator not only for the longevity of the device but also the residual value. This is increasingly important given the growing number of consumers that are trading in their phones after a couple of years."
This was echoed by Pescatore, who claimed the move "raises the bar [for support] among licensees" which had previously languished around two years.
"A lot of these devices get handed down, and there's a vibrant second-hand market for phones. [Vivo] is putting pressure on rivals," he said.
And on that basis, maybe Vivo deserves some credit. But there's a larger discussion to be had about whether the current three-year target is fit for purpose. Based on current ownership patterns, the answer is a resounding "no." ®
*Which presumably ran through an English-to-marketing translator prior to publication. "[Vivo] aims to extend the high-end smartphone experience offered by the X series devices by ensuring continuous improvements based on evolving consumer trends and exciting new software innovations."