I admit, I held hope that Google might surprise us with the Pixel 2 and 2 XL. They were only guaranteed updates until this month, but Google was able to bring the original 2016 Pixels Android 10 last year even though they weren’t promised to get it. Secretly, I wanted that to be a trial run for the Pixel 2, dreaming that Google might surprise us with an extra year of updates. After all, 2017 wasn’t that long ago, and the hardware has the headroom for at least another year or two of updates. But, though the phones commanded a premium $650-750 price tag at launch, they’re being left behind. For three key reasons (including Google’s own hypocrisy), that just isn’t okay.
Samsung recently committed to a full three years of OS updates for its flagships, stepping up from two plus a year of security patches. We can still do better.
The “Android phones should get more updates” take is almost as old as the platform itself. And though we’re beyond the dark early years where a year of updates was your best-case scenario, the most we can anticipate these days is a three-year promise — and, when it comes to OS updates and not just security updates, that’s a new thing for some companies. Things might be better than they used to be, but it’s still not enough. Pixels should be leading the charge when it comes to software, and in the wake of the Pixel 2’s premature demise, it’s time for Google to step up and do better.
Rising prices and ‘better’ phones, so why can’t we keep them longer?
…all Android phones are equally disadvantaged.
One key argument for more updates is value. Flagship smartphone prices are rising astronomically, and though we’ve crested the thousand-dollar price point, the phones themselves don’t last appreciably longer. You can pick up a $350 Pixel 4a or a $1,300 Galaxy Note20 Ultra, but they’re both only promised updates for three years. And in the world of Android, that’s the best you can hope for. Anything past that is a bonus you can’t expect or rely on.
Price makes no difference here: In best-case software support, all Android phones are equally disadvantaged. The most “premium” experience still only promises it will remain relevant and secure for three years. Even though you can buy ultra-expensive devices that guarantee incredible speed, fantastic cameras, and futuristic materials from the bleeding edge of consumer-oriented science, when the clock strikes midnight a mere three years later, it’s as much a pumpkin as any budget phone.
Rising prices also invite comparison with other product categories. At the new and sadly normal thousand-dollar price point, phones cost as much as laptops. Some would even argue they duplicate much of the same functionality, and efforts like DeX aim for phones to ultimately replace computers for some people. But they don’t compete there when it comes to updates either. Both Windows and macOS-powered laptops get updates pretty much until their hardware can’t take it anymore. My now-ancient 2014 Macbook Pro still gets patches and OS updates directly from Apple, and Windows laptops last even longer — though admittedly, manufacturers often give up aspects of first-party hardware support like touchpad drivers after 3-5 years.
The Lenovo Chromebook Duet will get updates for the next eight years at just $280.
But my favorite comparison to make here is another Google product category: Chromebooks. In fact, the arrangement there is very similar to Android: Google makes the software, third parties handle the hardware. They even run Android apps now. And Chromebooks like the Pixelbook Go released last year will still get six more years of updates, and other Chromebooks do even better. Of course, Google has much more centralized control over the Chrome OS platform and administers updates directly, giving it a solid edge in software longevity, but it’s a parallel we can’t ignore.
Meet Google, the sustainability hypocrite
Beyond the subject of price and comparisons with other products, there’s another key argument to be made: Sustainability. Google has been bending over backward to highlight the efforts it’s made to reduce the impact its businesses have on the environment, reducing its carbon footprint, using renewable energy sources, and switching to recycled materials in its latest hardware — The Pixel 5 has a “100% recycled aluminum enclosure,” and both its first-party cases and smart speakers use recycled plastic fabric.
Google’s much-hyped recycled fabric on the new Nest Audio (left) and Nest Mini (right).
While it’s great Google is looking forward, the company should consider looking back at the impact its existing hardware makes on the environment, too. When phones stop getting updates, they’re more likely to be replaced. (That’s our recommendation as well, since switching to a ROM to stay up to date isn’t something everyone can handle.) Pixel phones don’t exactly age gracefully in the used market, so by the time they stop getting updates, they aren’t worth very much. Unfortunately, not everyone will dispose of devices correctly, and not every phone will end up being recycled for its constituent materials. (Only 25 states have e-waste laws on the books preventing it from ending up in the normal trash stream.) Google could try to mitigate that via trade-ins, simultaneously encouraging brand loyalty with a minor subsidy at the time of purchase like Samsung does for its phones, but it doesn’t. In fact, trading in a Pixel phone is one way to guarantee you get as little back as possible.
Google’s promises of sustainability ring hollow when it won’t commit to longer updates that would make a bigger impact
E-waste is a serious problem right now, especially as consumers have started succumbing to 5G-based marketing as an incentive to upgrade. Google does offer a free recycling program, but that’s jumping the sustainability gun. Let’s all think back to grade school: Remember the “three Rs?” Reduce, reuse, recycle. They’re in a specific order for a reason, and recycling is meant to be the last-ditch effort on the path to sustainability — sadly, it’s all Google offers.
The Pixel 2 and 2 XL may be three-year-old phones, but they still have plenty of life left in them. The Snapdragon 835 is no slouch even today, and some folks still have plenty of battery capacity left. (Battery replacements are also a thing, so that’s no excuse either.) In short, the hardware is still perfectly good and capable of carrying on for another couple of years, Google simply abandoned it. Yes, it met its promised schedule, and yes, it’s running a business. But frankly, Google’s promises of sustainability ring hollow when it won’t commit to longer updates that would make a bigger impact on the environment than the recycled plastic cloth it parades as “progress.”
I firmly believe that if Google was genuinely committed in the ways it claims to be, it would set an example to keep more of its own phones running for longer.
And, of course, because Apple does it
I feel like we’ve added plenty of worthwhile points to an otherwise mined-out topic, but there is one last always-applicable reason for Google to consider updating Pixels for longer than three years: Apple does it.
Apple is king in the US market, with nearly half of us in its pocket according to shipments over the last couple quarters. It’s the biggest smartphone vendor in the US, and every single Android device will be compared to an Apple product. Apple doesn’t explicitly promise a window of device update support, but it doesn’t need to. History speaks for itself, and basically every iPhone since the 3GS has seen 4-5 years of updates. In fact, that expected longevity was almost enough for us to call the iPhone SE a better phone than the Pixel 4a — and even with the 4a’s reduced price, the SE is unarguably a better long-term value on that basis alone.
Apple beats Google and all Android phones when it comes to updates.
It’s no secret that Google has trouble selling Pixels, though its budget offerings do much better. If it wants to seriously compete in the US market, its products will have to compare favorably to Apple’s on paper. We’re keeping our phones longer and longer, so the duration of software updates seriously matters.
Playing devil’s advocate, Google has managed to decouple some aspects of updates from the system itself. Lots of features are controlled and deployed via Play Services rather than core system updates, and Project Mainline has modularized some aspects of security updates so they can roll out via the Play Store. According to XDA’s Mishaal Rahman, Mainline support is even a requirement as part of GMS licensing, so it’s widely available in devices running Android 10 and later. Still, the list of security vulnerabilities in each monthly Android security bulletin implies system updates are still useful, and the Pixel 2 and 2 XL won’t be getting those kinds of patches anymore.
Of course, when it comes to updates on most phones, it’s simply out of Google’s hands. Samsung handles its own software; the same goes for OnePlus, LG, Sony, and so on down the list of manufacturers. Google can’t make anyone push past the requirements it imposes as part of licensing agreements for Android and Play Services. But, there is one product line Google is fully in control of, and there’s nothing stopping the company from pushing the software support envelope on its own Pixel phones. We could point fingers (justly) at companies like Qualcomm for not making this easier, but Google can at least keep up with custom ROMs here, shimming and stubbing things together to stretch out another year of life as a symbol, if nothing else.
Pixels set precedent in the world of Android
I think it’s fair to say many of us in the Android tech bubble consider Pixels to be the Android-as-Android flagship: an example of the very best the software can do, though the prices aren’t always good, the hardware sometimes falls flat, and features come short of Samsung’s sometimes-better but often-messy kitchen sink approach. Historically, there’s been a lot wrong with them, but in pure software terms, they’re the bleeding edge, running the latest OS version. Pixels are a model not just for our own platform expectations as the closest company to “stock,” but a guide for OEMs to implement new practices and features as Android changes. Google is simultaneously the Android developer, gatekeeper, and (sadly) role model — though every time I’ve spoken to representatives from the company about the subject, they’re adamant they treat Pixels no differently from any other OEM.
Google helped establish the current three-year standard back in 2015 in the wake of Stagefright, and whether the company likes it or not, Pixels set precedent in the world of Android. The phones may not sell well, but they’re trendsetters whose changes eventually become parts of future licensing requirements. It’s time for Google to step up, do better, and encourage other manufacturers to do the same by example, committing to update Pixel phones for longer than just three years — starting with the Pixel 2, if it can be done.