Price of Software Updates

I’ve been having a lot of trouble with my Galaxy SII after the ICS FF18 OTA update last month, but as I was googling around for some workarounds or solutions, I came across a very pointed piece written a couple months back by a business user who spent a couple days trying to fix Swype and bookmarks/web on his SII post-FF18. It would be TL;DR except for the fact that he makes a very good point about the Android platform that cannot be ignored, and that is that because of the fact that it is open and in the hands of several phone manufacturers, updating these devices with each new update Google releases makes it hard to bug fix and test with so much different hardware, a relative non-issue for Apple and less of an issue for Windows Mobile.

Often the “chain of blame” that goes around is Sprint -> Samsung -> Google. For Sprint, they’re the forward-facing entity, they take your money and operate the network you place calls and trade data with, so it’s obvious that when your phone has a problem, you complain to them first. Unfortunately all they do is maintain said network, and sell you phones. They don’t write the code, build the devices, or service them in any way. They will usually, and quickly, defer you to the phone manufacturer or to Google depending on the scope of the issue. Samsung, being the phone manufacturer, makes only the hardware you are holding. They don’t write the software that runs on the device besides their internal software used to regulate the hardware and interface with the OS. While they do extensive testing I’m sure to make sure everything works, it’s ultimately up to the software to execute functions on their hardware. So this leaves Google, makers of Android and maintainers of the operating system that is in-use of the phone. Updates to the OS come from them, have to be tested by Samsung on their hardware, and then approved by Sprint to be released to their customers. In that order.

The problem, at least as I see it, is that all three companies point fingers at each other when problems do occur, and consumers are led around in a tangled web of these blame-game tactics because these companies can’t seem to man up and take ownership of the issue and attempt to resolve it quickly. Microsoft, for what everyone bitches about them for, has been releasing fixes and updates to their flagship software for the last decade and more. They do it often, and rarely do you get an update that completely kills your computer’s ability to be a computer. Their customer base is in the millions, and they use a variety of hardware devices. So why can’t Google and the various phone manufacturers do this? Why can they not troubleshoot problems and get critical fixes out within days of report?

The answer to this is likely within Sprint, and the other phone companies. They continue to play by “the old rules” that has governed wireless communications since the late 90’s, rules that have kept us all in contracts that still exist to subsidize hardware costs to the consumer, limited to what can be done on their network, and for many, paying a chunk of change for the same data usage you pay for your home internet for much less. There are millions of cellphone users out there, and many are now using smartphones, and phone companies love this because they can charge you out the ass for data and extras because you’ll pay for them, be it for work or for fun. Sprint may be the lesser of four evils, having better priced data plans than the other big three, but their signal strength and reliability are the worst of the four. Even switching to LTE I don’t think will really boost them a lot, and I fear future infrastructure updates will cost us our decently priced phone and data plans in the long run. Sprint has proven itself to be a destroyer of itself after acquiring Nextel and effectively trashing IDEN to the point where they are jettisoning it next summer.

All of this ties into the central point that what separates Microsoft from Apple is that the former chose to work with the business world and develop business software solutions, where the latter focused on regular consumers and hobbyists. In the mobile world, Palm and Blackberry used to dominate the business mobile user with Windows Mobile a close third, now Windows Mobile remains committed to business users (especially Exchange users), Apple remains committed to regular consumers although they tightened their platform, and Android is Favorited among hobbyists. I am a hobbyist user, so Android is my weapon of choice, but I will admit that if I needed a solid phone for business purposes, I would probably choose Windows Mobile. What is killing Android, albeit slowly, is the fact that with so many manufacturers in the field, making the OS cross-compatible with everything is killing theirs and Google’s ability to effectively maintain these devices. The big phone companies do not care, they don’t focus on one user base over another, they just sell phones and make money, so no one is regulating anyone to focus on better quality controls. I hate the “R word” too, but it is needed in some cases when consumers like I and many others have problems with our devices that these companies just shrug their shoulders and offer no solutions.

The fact these companies are slow to respond and resolve problems is why the “hacking” community for Android is large and thriving. These folks are essentially doing the jobs of hundreds of Sprint, Samsung, and Google employees by reverse-engineering, deploying, and testing changes to Android on the various devices for the benefits of themselves and the mobile community at large. It’s a shame that only Google really acknowledges these people’s efforts and even attempts to work more closely with the community to resolve problems, as evident with the Nexus line of phones and tablets, after all, Android is an open-source system based on Linux. Everyone has their eyes on Apple so badly that they neglect their own base. We all love our devices and most of us don’t even bare much ill-will towards them for making these phones, but it’s pretty bad when the hacking community can get a hold of a release before it hits Sprint, have it broken down and reassembled, and working much better than it was before in days, not months.

Being someone who does production support analysis and quality assurance testing, I am not heartbroken over software bugs and crashes. It happens in computing, it happens a lot. People often get heated about such things, talk about lost productivity and money, how shitty the testers must have been, gross negligence, blah blah blah. They’re all valid complaints, as the OP in that link mentions, his usage of a device and software will vary compared to someone else. You can’t believe people will all sit back and down a cold one and be cool about it. But at the same time, overreacting and calling someone’s mother a whore will not fix your problems faster. Software is as much of a living thing as the people who write it, and when it comes to my phone, yeah, it has problems, but I can fix it. I can flash back to GB EL29. I can flash forward to FH13 (but not FH23, that was broken) and see if that fixes it. The data speed sucks? Flash to the EL29 modem. Even if you aren’t a computer person or a software developer, if you use one, learn what it does, learn some tricks to get around problems, and if you’re going to complain or file a bug report, document everything completely and thoroughly, preferably with steps to reproduce. Developers and testers are people too, properly written reports help identify and fix things faster.

End soapbox.

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