When it comes to Android vs. Apple iOS comparisons, fans of the small green machine have a lot of ammunition they can lob at Apple. Devices tend to be more expensive, other phones often offer more advanced features late in the iPhone's upgrade cycle, and Android phones often have microSD slots for expandable storage.
A recent investigation into long-term device support has shone a spotlight on one area where Apple products leave the Android equivalents eating dust: software updates. The situation is honestly worse than we suspected when we alluded to device manufacturers' being entirely focused on short-term profits and quick phone launches. All of the Apple hardware currently for sale, including the nearly 2.5 year-old iPhone 3GS, supports the latest iOS version, iOS 5. The iPhone 3G, now over three years old, received its last OS update (4.2.1) less than a year ago.
The Android situation is much worse. The survey at theunderstatement tracks 18 Android phones, all of which had a launch price of at least $100, with the majority in the $180-$230 price range. Of the 18 phones tracked, 10 of them were at least two major Android versions behind within their two year contract period, 11 were updated for less than a year, 15 don't support the nearly year-old Gingerbread OS, and 16 of the 18 will never be updated to ICS.
The only Android phone with an update record that even approaches Apple's is HTC's Nexus One, though the HTC Evo 4G and the Droid Incredible aren't too badly off. Motorola is easily the worst provider on the list with multiple devices now at least three Android versions behind. The chart is striking because, as the author notes, nearly all of the owners of all the devices are still under contract. Phones specifically advertised as "built to last" fare no better than the others.
Carriers have good reason to avoid OS updates, if they can—pushing out a new OS means dealing with the customers whose phones don't update properly, or who lose app functionality. Apple's strict control of the iOS infrastructure helps to simplify the update process. Given the laundry list of bugs most phones ship with, it's not always clear that the carriers are capable of fixing the shipping software, much less pushing out a new version.
The flip side to all of this, however, is that paying customers have a right to expect prompt service and promised features. "Because we're really terrible at providing updates" isn't a valid reason not to do, and the fire-and-forget nature of the smartphone business could have significant negative consequences down the road. Security flaws in old versions of Android could expose millions of customers still using devices a carrier never figured out how to update effectively.
More to the point, it illustrates a fundamental difference between how Apple treats the iPhone versus how the carriers think of their devices. The 'service' section of a service contract should apply to more than a right to use the network. What's the point of having a computer in one's pocket if you can't update it?