It's iPhone launch day and that means one thing: we're likely to be treated to a slide telling us how great Apple's iOS updates are and how poor Android is by comparison. 

It's a regular feature of an Apple keynote, often greeted with a laugh as iOS' high percentages are compared to Google's extremely low percentages.

But there's more to this than a simple graph portrays.

Comparing apples with bananas

There's a huge difference between the way that Apple runs its smartphone business and the way that Android operates. Apple designs and manufactures the iPhone and designs the software for it. It's a symbiotic relationship; no one else can use iOS - meaning Apple has complete control over everything in the system.

It's a key strength of Apple: the whole system works seamlessly.

Android is an open source operating system. In its basic form anyone can install it on anything and use that as a platform. For the full experience most of us recognise as Android you'll need to be a certified partner and there are 160 certified brand partners according to this list - and many more manufacturers besides. 

That covers a huge range of different types of device from a wide range of manufacturers. And that the key strength of Android: it's a dynamic platform.

That's why this is a comparison that doesn't make sense: iOS is the iPhone, but Android is not all Android phones. 

iPhone vs Pixel 

Approach it from a different angle and you can compare like with like. If you compare Pixel phones - those designed and manufactured by Google and running Google's Android software - and the iPhone, you're comparing the same thing. (Yes, there are millions of iPhones out there and not many Pixels, but here you're at least comparing apples with apples.)

In fact Rick Osterloh, senior vice president of devices and services at Google, tweeted saying that some 75 per cent of users had upgraded Pixel devices to the latest version. This figure relates to Android 9 Pie in October 2018, following software release in August 2018.

What this figure suggests is that when you compare Pixels to iPhones, there isn't a huge difference in the percentages updated to the latest software version.

Take all the Android devices from Huawei, Samsung and everyone else and yes, there's a very different story to be told and updates are, compared to the Apple iPhone, painfully slow. But does that actually matter?

Android and iOS services run differently 

If we ignore the set-top boxes, cameras, car head units and other devices that might be using Android and stick to phones, there's another substantial difference between how Apple and Google provide their services and how updates are applied - and this is one that ignores manufacturer. 

Android unbundled most of its apps (Gmail, Calendar, Google Assistant, Search, Google Maps, etc) from the core Android system software over the past few years and that means that to get an updated Google Maps feature, for example, Android just updates the Google Maps app. 

This applies to a huge range of things, including sweeping changes to services like Google Assistant, where entirely new functions can be pushed to millions of users as and when Google feels ready. 

Remember, those Google services apply across Android devices, not just to Pixel devices, and these updates are regular - and have little to do with the version of the core software that the phone in running on. In essence, if you've got a Pixel on Android 10 and a Xiaomi phone on Android 9 Pie, the native Google app experience is basically the same.

Significantly, the core Android version doesn't dictate the entirety of the device experience, so whether you're running the latest version or not doesn't really matter in the short term.

Android is a constellation of many different stars

The story doesn't end there. As we set out at the opening, Apple makes the iPhone, it makes iOS for the iPhone and that's that. Android again, is different, because other manufacturers start with Android and evolve it into something else - Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi, LG, Sony, HTC, Oppo and many more present a different experience that sits on an Android core.

In many cases, manufacturers are bringing innovation to Android in a wider context, introducing features on their devices that you don't get on other Android phones. Samsung is nothing like Xiaomi, Huawei is nothing like Sony.

The "skinning" of Android is part of the branding of those devices, the manufacturer defining the experience - and this goes a long way beyond Android version. Apple's iPhone identity is iOS, but for Samsung, the software brand they are pushing is One UI, and for Huawei it's EMUI. 

In some cases these skins surpass the offerings of Android. For example, Android 10 introduces "dark mode", but Samsung already has a "night mode" in One UI on Android 9, so you're hardly missing out. 

With that in mind, being on the latest version of Google's software isn't the most important thing: it's not the defining point of the software experience of an "Android" phone. If that's what you want from your phone, then Pixel offers that. If you want something close to that then Android One offers that - but there are many other sparks of joy in Android phones that have nothing to do with Android itself. 

Extending the life of your phone

But let's not take anything away from Apple - supporting so many device versions and bringing software updates to millions of people through iOS is commendable.

The latest version of Apple's mobile software - iOS 13 - has knocked the 2014 iPhone 6 out of the loop, but supports all other recent iPhone models. That's something to be celebrated, because it benefits a lot of people and doesn’t hold you hostage to buying a new phone.

Meanwhile, Android 10 is offering updates back to the 2016 Pixel. That's 5 years of support against 3 years of support from Google's OS - and many Android manufacturers will only offer 2 years of version upgrades. Some manufacturers might put in the work to update older devices (OnePlus is better than most) but that's generally not the trend we're seeing.

If anything, this is a more important point than nuances of software version. Android manufacturers should be doing more to support devices, extending their life, especially at the premium end of the market.

So feel free to laugh at those graphs; laughing is good for your health, but understand what you're laughing at.

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