Android Overrated

Android is overrated.

Android is the more overrated OS currently, and the worse part of it is that is in more than 85 % of mobile OS market share (according to this article). If you look at the numbers (September 2016) according to Google android 4 (in all it’s versions) holds 44.7% of the active devices, followed by a 35% for Android 5 and a shy 18.7% for Android 6. And Android 7 was released on august 22. 

Version

Codename

API

Distribution

2.2

Froyo

8

0.1%

2.3.3 –
2.3.7

Gingerbread

10

1.5%

4.0.3 –
4.0.4

Ice Cream Sandwich

15

1.4%

4.1.x

Jelly Bean

16

5.6%

4.2.x

17

7.7%

4.3

18

2.3%

4.4

KitKat

19

27.7%

5.0

Lollipop

21

13.1%

5.1

22

21.9%

6.0

Marshmallow

23

18.7%

Data collected during a 7-day period ending on September 5, 2016.
Any versions with less than 0.1% distribution are not shown.

Let’s establish a base line here, I’m an android user since 2009/10 when the lg gw620 was launched in Argentina, I have rooted devices for several reasons, from deleting bloatware, power using, updating to a newer OS, curiosity or simply fix a bug on the OEM ROM. And I had phones from several brands, I remember  Motorola, LG, Samsung, Huawei and I currently own a Xiaomi Redmi note 3. 

Why haven’t I used another OS?

Easy, I don’t like how the IOS ecosystems works, and if I hardly use windows on my computers, using it on a mobile device is not going to happen. Other options like Ubuntu or Tizen, are way to much effort, beyond the normal flashing.

Why do I state that Android is overrated if I’m a user since version 1.6?

It’s simple we had android around for so long giving an awful user experience that we got used to it. Before we get to the specific reasons of this, I will briefly explain (for more details read this great article here) how shady is making an Android device in sequence:

  • A – Google makes an android version for the supported devices in AOSP. (Nexus/Pixel)
  • B – The chip makers elaborate the BSP (board support package) and HAL (hardware abstraction layer) or in a less fancy way drivers and other stuff to make the hardware work with Android.
  • C – The OEM gets everything it need to work on creating the ROM, and test it.
  • D – The carrier add their bloatware on top of the additions of the OEM, and you got a phone in market.

 The only step regularly updated is A (you could get a nexus/pixel device to enjoy monthly updates), after that chip makers will not always update BSPs and HALs in order to sell new SoC; if it does happen  not all OEMs will update and old phone (a just released phone is already old because they need to work on the next one); and even if you are lucky enough to get chip makers and OEMs to update your phone, you still need the carrier to release the update that they usually don’t because it will be too much work for customer support (this last step does not apply for unlocked phones, but they are not the norm either).

Let’s dive into the details of why I say that the user experience is that bad, this will apply for the most part to the “western” experience of android, but more on that later:

1- Customer support:

Customer support will tell you that rooting is wrong, and that you void their warranty (something that at least in US is not true as explained here), you will have a device that will not be up to date regarding the OS (as shown on the charts at the beginning of the article), and even if the device gets an update or two, it will never be as updated as AOSP.

If this was your windows computer, you will be complaining about the fact that you get only the windows update that your OEM wants, and if the update is buggy you will complain to get it fixed. That’s not something that usually happens regarding your android phone. So you end up with a phone updated to the point that the combination between carrier/OEM/chip maker allowed you, that may or may not work, and if it not, you’ll end up buying a new phone.

If you are more savvy, you will search for alternatives in places like XDA to root your phone and install a custom ROM,  that has lots of great things, but in the end you will find that some other compromises have to be maid in order to get it working, because the BSP/HAL is not available. So when you are creating a custom ROM you have to hack around the problems, it’s not the better solution, but is the one we have, and you have great outcomes like Cyanogen. And all this works because the great community of users/developers work towards having a better android experience.

2 – How the business model is killing the soul of the open source that resides on Android:

Android has at his core a Linux kernel. Yet they don’t work like any other open source project, they manage AOSP as it was a unique project, and basically you need to be in compliance of their rules in order to port a device to the ecosystem, and that management spirit, oriented to change the market to make profit is quite different of the spirit of open source where you change the world, make a good product, and make profit on top of it.

Look at Red hat, SUSE or Ubuntu, they are OS based on Linux kernel and using GNU software, and they are profitable companies. And in Linux case, even when the hardware manufacturers are not cooperative, and don’t give you drivers for the device, you can still make Linux work , but that is not exactly the case with android, because developing android is a “job” for an OEM, if you want to develop something for android, do an app, not an OS version that will make users want to change the one they have in their device. If you want to do an OS you will be forced to do some hacking and reverse engineering in order to find the work around the BSP/HAL problem, and will face the fact that in the end, you are not the owner of your phone, because you are not free of doing what you want with it. You can’t change the OS because companies will stop providing support (even if that support is a joke), you have no power to decide which apps you want and which ones don’t, even if the ones you don’t are bloatware of one or more of the companies that are part of the process of making the ROM, that make your phone work with lag or occupy precious internal memory space. Because let’s be clear, if it’s not a high end device with 16/32 GB of storage you will struggle with the amount of free space you have available for apps.

If we had the same restrictions on a laptop, or a desktop, we would not be using it, because it’s not worth it. Why would you want a device that you can’t tailor to your needs? Why do you need to be punished for not being able to pay a high end device?  Because not having a device like that will mean that you’ll hardly get an update, even if you do, it may or may not work as well as the previous version. And if you don’t like the changes made by the update there is no easy way to go back, I don’t imaging most of the users getting online to look up how can they downgrade the Android version, and that’s something pretty basic that for an OS that claims to be easy to use and pointed to be used by the masses.

So in the end you are paying for a device that will not have proper OS maintenance, because security on portable devices is in diapers, even after 7 years of development, with BYOD taking such an important role in how we work, and the importance of keeping information secured, we still haven’t gotten to a point where the android ecosystem is maintained as if it was an actual operating system even when it is.

And it’s not something impossible, I don’t like how Apple forces you to be married with them when you dive into that ecosystem, but I have to say that the fact that they give to their system proper maintenance makes it a more promising OS, and more suitable for an enterprise environment. For that to happen you have to be able and willing to spend on an iPhone, but you will be granted updates for it for some time (around 5 years), while on android market the only similar case is nexus/pixel devices, but they are a small part of the market and give only 2 years of support. 

3 – There is still hope:

Even with all the problems that I see in the Android ecosystems, there are lot’s of communities doing great work, such as Cyanogen and XDA.  And there are also OEMs that are changing the focus orienting it towards a great user experience as Xiaomi and Oneplus and other brands that are not part of the traditional western market (Oppo, Micromax, etc). The example that is easier for me to talk about is Xiaomi. They offer a forum with lot of active users ready to help you, great control over what you can do with your device without rooting, focused on the user experience. If you didn’t read the article about the Redmi Note 3, that is mostly focused on MIUI the ROM sustained/developed by Xiaomi, let me give you a brief glimpse. You are able to create a second space on your phone, put password on apps, micro manage permission and network access, encrypt content, hide content, unlock your phone with your fingerprint. All that packed in a 5.5 phone with snapdragon 650 and 3 gb of RAM for around 200$ (us dollars), to buy it usually you need to do it online or live in China/India (maybe there are other physical stores that I don’t know about). The problem is that we still we are not disclosing all the necessary information to improve how this works. If developers could have access to not only AOSP, but also to updated BSP/HAL, there is a new business model to exploit, because you can have companies developing different flavors of Android, OEMs can avoid the cost of maintaining an OS, and we as users can have a good user experience, and the freedom and security to change in a simple manner our OS, to make the most out of our devices. It will work based on the same principle as Linux, if the information is available, you could build your own, you could start your own company to provide OS and support service (you could watch this interesting ted talk regarding open source business here).

But what is still a surprise for me is the following, now that the IT industry know that business with an open source core are profitable, with the world shifting toward a new paradigm of collaborative platforms that allows us to do it across the globe, working with your own devices and the mobility that it’s provided by them; why are we still trapped in the business model that Android had when it started? Things change constantly in the world, and as the time goes by the pace of this changes is getting faster, it’s time to embrace that change, start giving options. Tailored devices could benefit greatly from this. For example Nethunter is an OS created to make pen testing using android devices, and this could open a market to tailored Android version for other professionals like Md, or geologist, or whatever someone can imagine, even the revolution for the classroom, and this is something that we need to change urgently because it is awfully outdated, even more that our old Froyo devices. 

4 – Security:

Last but not least, the bigger impact that this model has is on the security. Not being able to keep devices up to date regarding the OS version is harmful for any organization or individual. We are exposing ourselves and/or our companies (depending if they support BYOD or not), to threats that are probably taken care off in the latest version of the OS, but for all we enumerated before, you will not get it. So you will be walking around with a vulnerable device for most of the lifespan of that device, and taking into account that we do almost everything from them, is not a great idea.

Let’s put it this way, you buy a phone today, for example a Moto Z (June 2016), in sometime during the last quarter of the year it will receive an update to android nougat. For the sake of this example, let’s assume that this update will get to the device in November. In the moment you turn on your phone it’s already outdated 4 months. In November you get your Nougat update, so you are at least one month outdated, because if the update is in November, it will hardly include the November update. For the amount of money that you expended on the device you will like to keep it for a little more than a year, so from November till the next one, if you are lucky,it will get an update or two, and if you spent enough money, you may be lucky enough to get a second upgrade for the OS, only if the SoC on your device can handle it (you could check the list of devices getting Nougat to check what I’m saying here).

Conclusion

I think it’s time for us as users, to rise our voices and complain about this broken system. Because this should be more transparent, and give to the community what they deserve, tools to make the ecosystem grow. Things change fast, and we should embrace it, and this is not the exception. Change is usually scary and awkward, but we need it, and as I see it, this could be great for the users and for the IT industry (specially security teams).

It would be great to hear what you think, let me know in the comments.

 

Regards.

Juan Cruz.