Operating system updates

Google have released a version of their Chrome web browser for Android, and it seems to be rather good—but it only runs on the very latest version of Android, version 4. Which is a bit of an annoyance, because hardly anybody has that version.

Glancing at the 12 most popular Android phones on the Expansys site, I can see only two—the two variants of Google’s Galaxy Nexus—supplied with Android 4. That’ll change, but in the mean time there hasn’t been much of a rush to provide updates for older phones.

I’m generally ambivalent about operating system updates. I believe that both phones and PCs are bought on the basis of the way they look and work at the time, not in the expectation that updates will change anything significant.

As a long-term Linux user I’m all too familiar with the concept of the Ubuntu update that breaks everything, but I think my uncertainty about the wisdom of updates is common among people using most kinds of computer.

I updated my Galaxy Tab from Android 2.2 to 2.3: it improved battery life a bit, stopped cut and paste working in some applications, and provided no obvious interface improvements—not a big net positive. I know iPhone users who complain about Apple persuading them to install updates that slow down their previously perfectly good phones. My wife updated her WP7 phone recently, grumbling about the amount of time and laptop disc space used by the installer, only to find the update made no detectable change at all. OS/X 10.7 had a decidedly mixed response from users of earlier versions.

Why would anyone want to update anyway?

What drives updates is application support. The only time most users will start hunting for an operating system update—as opposed to installing one that’s thrust into their face by the device itself—is when they find they can’t run applications they care about because their OS is too old.

Even then, they’ll probably resent having to update to do it.

I don’t really care about Android 4 on my own device, which is fortunate because it doesn’t appear to be available. But I would like to try out Chrome. (There are several OK browsers for Android, but no really good ones—and the one I like best in principle, Firefox, itself gets less stable for me with every update.)

I wonder how fundamental Chrome’s dependency on Android 4 really is. Perhaps the only reason it didn’t exist before was that it needed some quite basic OS support that earlier versions couldn’t provide.

Or perhaps the dependency is seen as a serendipitous one, and the release of Chrome as a way to encourage users like me, and phone manufacturers, to update as soon as possible.