I love my Galaxy S5. Thanks to a case, screen protector, and a fair amount of luck, my phone has survived three years of abuse by me and is still in like new condition. Yes, I’ve had to purchase a replacement battery. Yes, my internal storage on my device has been eaten through by system memory and apps so I occasionally have to delete things. No, my phone is not sleek, new, or exciting, but after all this time it does the jobs I need it to do.
The problem I’m facing now doesn’t lie with the device itself, but with the software. My Galaxy started off its life with KitKat (Android version 4.4) and got upgraded the next year to Lollipop (5.0) and then to Marshmallow (6.0) the year after. I was running through the whimsical gamut of delicious upgrades, ever awaiting the next delicious version… but that’s where the magic stopped.
Nougat (7.0) was released and I waited.
It became fairly apparent when they announced the release of Oreo (8.0) a few months ago that my phone wasn’t going to be getting sweet new versions any longer.
While this is a bit disappointing in itself – I will never have Oreo or whatever delectable version comes next (Pancake? Parfait? Pumpkin Pie? Pop Tart? Popcorn?) – what is more disappointing is that the useable life of my phone is now ticking down to a close. While my phone may have another year or two of software and patch support as it made it to Marshmallow (6.0), many devices currently in use do not, and users of devices currently running KitKat will soon be unsupported like the many sweet themed iterations that came before it. According to an Android version distribution survey, as of August 2017 KitKat users and versions below that make up a quarter of devices still running that use unsupported operating systems.
UNSUPPORTED? SO WHAT?
The problem with devices losing support and running outdated versions of their operating systems is that it makes them more vulnerable to the contagions of the internet: viruses, malware, hacks, etc. This can put your personal information at risk, and if you use your device for work related activities – for example, if you’re logging into your company’s networks and apps with a vulnerable device – you could put the whole company at risk for an attack.
While operating systems are supported, developers keep an eye out for bugs and vulnerabilities in the code where it may be easy for hackers to infiltrate and they then create patches (code corrections) to fix or improve the weak points in your system which helps keep your system from being exploited. Criminals will compare newly released patches to the existing code to find out what changes have been made, so they know where the holes are to exploit in software that hasn’t been updated. Unsupported systems don’t receive these patches and make easy targets for criminals.
Having unsupported software can also be a problem when it comes to third party software support. Third party phone applications get updated with new software to keep up with technology trends; over time, they’ll stop adjusting their application to cater to your device’s operating system in favor of providing better support to most users with supported systems. So, some of your favorite apps may become obsolete or never again see an update.
*This is becoming an increasing problem with the amount of “Smart” technology being produced without easy and continuous access to updates or things that we simply don’t consider updating. Ever think about the operating system on your e-readers, smart watches, home security systems, smart appliances, streaming devices like Rokus, listening devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home, digital cameras, and GPS navigation systems? Perhaps not until now. But keep in mind, if it can connect to the internet, its able to be hacked.
WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN?
The problem of becoming unsupported isn’t unique to Android, this happens to essentially all software as it’s developed, as it evolves with device hardware and user wants and needs. IPhone users may get a generous 5 years of support. Android users may get 3 years, if we’re lucky. Windows phone users are promised a minimum of 18 months software support, but software upgrades can only be achieved through the purchase of a new device.
Android doesn’t have a one shoe fits all approach that it can use like Apple does. When Apple does updates and software support for their devices, they know what hardware specifications they’re working with because they’ve made all of the devices that run iOS, the same can’t be said for Android. Android is an open source code which is used as a software base for a variety of different manufacturers like Sony, HTC, LG, Samsung, Motorola, Nokia, etc., who then take that base code and customize it to their device adding features and software to make their devices more appealing. Customizing it to their device and their brand often ends up with the software being closed-source (we don’t want the competitors using the same stuff we do, right?) which means that updates to Android have to be run through the manufacturers for re-development and distribution and this comes with a lot of caveats.
- Many manufacturer’s will typically only expend the effort of updating newer and popular devices, generally their flagships (the phone they’re most known for). Lesser known and purchased devices will be slow in getting updates if they decide to roll them out at all.
- The manufacturers can be held up by cell phone carriers who can delay updates by months on their networks in testing for compatibility. CDMA (US) and GSM (Global) radio systems used for sending and receiving calls and data (and vary depending on device and carrier) are developed differently and tweaking Android to the way these devices operate takes time to make it compatible.
- And there’s isn’t a great amount of interest in keeping the devices updated after they’re released. With the sheer volume of phones being released and consumed by the public (phones having an average lifespan of just 21 months in the US), there’s greater profit in selling a whole new device than keeping your existing device running.
- Software can be incompatible with a device’s hardware.
WHAT TO DO
The best thing that can be done currently is to make sure your devices are up to date with updates. If the software updates are no longer being extended to your device, you may consider seeing if your device can handle a community built upgrade to the next version. Or remove your operating system and install a custom Android ROM like LineageOS (formerly CyanogenMod). – Technology will keep progressing forward, but we can encourage manufacturers and developers to extend the length of time they keep device operating systems supported. Aside from directly demanding longer support, keeping our devices in use longer rather than purchasing new each year would theoretically lead to longer support for our existing devices and vice versa.