There’s a big problem with smartphone software updates

Android 14 Easter egg with OxygenOS 14 beta on OnePlus 11.
Tushar Mehta/

Software updates, the lifeblood of our phones, are a confusing mess — and we need manufacturers to let us know there’s a problem. These are bold words for a boring aspect of our phones, but it’s true.

We certainly need regular updates on our phones, but we don’t need questionable features so much that they become a “newsworthy” event, and updates are better presented to people actually using the device. need to.

marketing is taking over

ColorOS 14 splash page on Oppo Find N2.
Andy Boxall/

I’ve been using Android 14 on the Oppo Find N2 Flip with the company’s new ColorOS 14 interface, and honestly, it doesn’t look or feel any different from ColorOS 13 compared to Android 13. This isn’t the first time I’ve settled for using a “new” version of an existing platform and wondered what the fuss was about, and it’s certainly not a situation unique to Oppo. This becomes a timely example of what is happening.

Save on everything from laptops and tablets to coffee makers and smart home essentials like air purifiers and the Amazon Echo.

What’s new in ColorOS 14? There are some new colors and ringtones, a new always-on display, a new way to create a file in Notes, and some performance tweaks. These have been given attractive names like Trinity Engine, Aqua Dynamics and Aquamorphic Sound Style. Otherwise, there are slight differences in layout, fonts and design, but the key word is difference, not improvement. Underneath this is Google’s core Android 14 experience, which is based on changes introduced in Android 12 and Android 13, and you need in-depth knowledge of those two versions to spot the changes.

ColorOS 14 on the Find N2 Flip has been very reliable, ringtones sound great, and overall performance has been great. That’s what a software update should be like – fast and smooth, no obvious bugs, and seamless in its integration – but I’ve struggled to find any meaningful changes that impact my day-to-day use, and Outside of the lengthy download and installation process, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the software had changed at all if I didn’t already know it was happening. It’s annoying with the OS not introducing features or changes in any obvious way, so the average person probably won’t even know what’s new.

Smartphone update required

Android 14 logo on Google Pixel 8 Pro.
Joe Maring/

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very glad that Oppo has insisted on bringing Android 14 before the end of the year with an updated user interface and it works very well. Providing timely updates is essential and is a sign that manufacturers take device security and long-term ownership seriously. Software updates are a must, and we’ve worked for years to get manufacturers to pay attention to them.

However, more recently, as the software matures and major changes are less likely to occur on an annual basis, it seems that these updates have been handed over to marketing teams, where any and all releases receive a level of fanfare. is given, which shows that it is something to be appreciated. , This makes sense, but there seems to be an effort behind it to add more to the software, so that it can be promoted. What’s worse, the way updates are presented to the person on the street who has the phone in question but doesn’t have access to the press release is poor.

Usually you are not told anything about this over the phone. The lack of engagement for the end user suggests that the update is not that important, and the intention is simply to get the media to talk about the update and, therefore, promote the company. There has also been a worrying trend this year where software updates are announced and released with missing features, like double tap in Apple’s watchOS 10 and various photo tools on the new Google Pixel 8 and Google Pixel 8 Pro. This is a slightly different problem, but it can lead to the same confusion or legitimate ambivalence towards software updates and features from outside the industry.

Some companies do it well

 "Get the most out of your Pixel" Page on Pixel 5.
How Android 14 was introduced on Google Pixel 5. Andy Boxall/

I think it’s important to show that updates are happening. New features can attract people to a product, announcements often need to be timed to events, and promotional activities help fund development. I also know that I see more updates because I use multiple devices, but that also tells me that some serious changes need to be made in the way software updates are handled so that they’re more relevant to more people. , interesting and actionable.

Is a company properly rolling out software updates to regular people? Nothing does it very well. When a software update arrives on the Nothing Phone 1 or Nothing Phone 2, there is a clear list of changes right before your download. It’s short and concise, and I love the fun emojis that make it viewable and friendly. To introduce Nothing OS 2.5, it presented the changes in a four-minute segment in a YouTube video for everyone to see. You can probably try it on your phone while you’re watching it.

An update is coming to the Nothing Phone 2.
Notice of an update coming to Nothing Phone 2. Andy Boxall/

Google’s Android feature drops aren’t always that exciting, but I like the way it presents updates on a single webpage, with links to essential apps and examples of how the feature works. In contrast, Apple’s iOS 17 page looks great, but is incredibly information-dense and not as interactive, while Samsung’s information on One UI 5 is a giant wall of text and not attractive at all.

Going through these sites makes me think that if features and changes are so hard to present legibly and are almost never explained on the device, does that mean the update is overly complicated as it appears to be? As if everything is new and different isn’t it? Even important updates aren’t always treated well. Android 14 and OneUI 6 arrived on my Galaxy S23 Ultra while I was writing this article, and although I was happy to see a long list of changes on the update page, there were no further introductions after updating and restarting the phone. . , despite some major changes.

Why is it a problem?

 "Your pixel becomes more useful" Pop-up on Pixel 5.
How Android 14 was introduced on Pixel 5. Andy Boxall/

Software updates are an essential part of our phones; We need to know what’s in them, and they need to be tested by media and beta testers to ensure that bugs can be detected and squashed. It is important to assess phones owned by the public before they have access to them. Today we are in a much better situation than we were a decade ago, when updates were considered an option and phones with outdated software were common.

But they remain an elusive and difficult problem. Software updates now sometimes come with only general or basic visual changes and little explanation, but are promoted nonetheless. Avoiding updates only if all changes are under the skin. The current approach minimizes the importance of updates, and they are ignored or confused by those who are not deeply connected to the tech world or the device ecosystem.

I’m not the only one or the first to recognize that this is an issue. A report from Kaspersky showed figures where 77% of respondents wanted silent updates in the background, and 69% wanted a clear explanation of what changed after installation. Now that manufacturers are committing to more software updates for the long term, it has become even more important to address these concerns.

What can be done?

iPhone plugged in above a MacBook showing the Apple logo during software update recovery.
Victor Szabo/Unsplash

What is the solution? Perhaps manufacturers should focus on one or two major updates per year, with all the new features big and small planned. More frequent, necessary, but boring updates should probably come quietly. Everything needs an explainer, and big updates need a how-to guide. Update can do If treated correctly they can be a promo-worthy event.

Apple ties its major updates to the arrival of the new iPhone, which gives importance and relevance to the new software and also helps showcase new features. Google’s “Make the most of…” introduction that’s present on updated Pixel phones shouldn’t be an outlier – it should be standard. When OneUI 6 and Android 14 arrived there was a long list of changes on the update page, but it may not appeal to people with limited time or system understanding. The fact that software updates – and the way they are delivered and explained – varies so much across devices requires streamlining and improving the system.

We all should keep track of software updates, and that includes manufacturers. But we don’t need to be artificially forced to pay attention just because someone is coming. If there’s something worth telling the end user, explain over the phone what’s new. If not, just send it – no need to embellish it. Changing the old pattern of ignoring the need for software updates took time and effort, but heavily publicized, but the shift toward not fully explaining updates also needed to be addressed before everyone could use the software. Stop caring about updates – and possibly ignore them – altogether.

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