Hey, Google: It's time to step up your Pixel upgrade promise

Look, it’s no big secret that I’m a fan of Google’s Pixel program.

I’ve personally owned Pixel phones since the first-gen model graced our gunk-filled pockets way back in 2016. And Pixels have been the only Android devices I’ve wholeheartedly recommended for most folks ever since.

There’s a reason. And more than anything, it comes down to the software and the overall experience Google’s Pixel approach provides.

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To be sure, other Android device-makers have gotten better about upgrades on and off over the years. But they’ve never handled that area with the consistency and the actual commitment Google offers — particularly when it comes to the timeliness side of the coin. That’s especially true with the oft-overlooked previous-gen flagships, where most other Android-associated companies really drop the ball.

So, please, keep all of that context in mind when I say this: Google’s gotta do better.

Allow me to explain.

To get to what’s happening today, we first need to fly back for a moment to this time six years ago.

Way back at the beginning of the Pixel line’s existence, back in the fall of 2016, offering a phone with two years of operating system update support was pretty much table stakes.

That number was the de facto Android ecosystem standard — for a flagship phone, at least, even if most others manufacturers didn’t always follow it.

So seeing Google stick with that setup for its initial Pixel product made enough sense. It wasn’t exceptional in and of itself, but the fact that Google actually delivered all of those updates to all of its Pixels more or less immediately after each update’s arrival was absolutely something worth celebrating (and that’s putting it mildly).

Still, even then, it felt like there was room for Google to do more. As a certain comely writer mused that October, shortly after the original Pixel’s debut:

If the Pixel is going to represent the very best of Google and Android, as it’s intended to, Google should bring things up a step from the baseline and make the Pixel stand out not just for its commitment to timeliness but also for its commitment to longevity. …

An extra year of updates would show that this is a phone meant to last — that it really is a cut above the rest. It’d show that Google is concerned with long-term consumer satisfaction over short-term sales. It’d show that in this sort of holistic scenario, updates don’t have to be a source of frustration on any level.

More than anything, it’d show that the Pixel truly is a special phone, through and through — a phone that … will give you unmatched value to go along with its unmatched user experience.

One year later, Google listened.

With the Pixel 2 in 2017, Google boosted its software support promise to three years of both Android operating system updates and monthly security patches. By the time we hit the Pixel 6 in 2021, that promise had expanded to a full five years of security patch support along with the same three years of operating system updates. That’s certainly nothing to shake a stick at.

But at the same time, the ecosystem around the Pixel has progressed. The standard has shifted. And instead of leading the way with longevity, Google’s Pixel is now lagging behind some of its contemporaries.

To wit: As of this year, Samsung is now pledging a full four years of operating system updates for some of its Galaxy-branded Android products. And just this week, OnePlus announced it’d do the same for its top-of-the-line flagship phones starting in 2023.

Now, there are plenty of caveats to be considered there. Both of those companies are confoundingly inconsistent with how long it takes for current software to actually reach its highest-paying customers — a notion that’s especially true when it comes to the previous-generation products. If you’re planning on keeping a Samsung or OnePlus phone for more than a year, you’d better be okay with waiting a good long while to get the updates that should, by all counts, reach you within a matter of days.

And that’s to say nothing about the timeliness of the equally important security patches, which OnePlus will apparently deliver only on a bimonthly basis instead of sending ’em out every month, as they arrive.

So, yes: Google’s Pixel phones still provide a superior all-around software support setup — something that’s particularly apparent when you’re palming a one-, two-, or three-year-old Pixel and still getting the latest and greatest (and most privacy-respecting and secure) Android software within hours of its release instead of waiting months to see it.

But still: That’s only part of the story. When it comes to longevity, Google’s now behind the curve with its Pixel promise instead of leading the way — or at the very least matching the leading offer.

To be clear, none of this takes away from the Pixel’s position as the best available all-around Android option in my book. The asterisks around the other leading Android choices are far more significant, and even on a purely numerical basis, the Pixel actually still comes out ahead in most measures.


All of that being said, the comparison here isn’t entirely parallel. Google isn’t Samsung. Its role within the Android ecosystem is dramatically different — as is its business model and what it stands to gain from getting people on board with its products.

Google, suffice it to say, isn’t your average Android manufacturer. While most device-makers rely primarily on hardware sales to turn a profit, Google makes the majority of its money by encouraging you to spend as much time as possible using the internet and thus its services (which in turn, of course, means you’ll provide more data that’ll let Google show you more and better targeted ads across the web).

Google’s ultimate goal, in other words, isn’t strictly to sell as many phones as possible. It’s to make the Android experience as good as possible for as many people as it can. More than anything, it wants to provide a spectacular ongoing user experience in which its own services shine, as that most effectively supports its primary business model.

That puts Google in a unique position to raise the stakes on software support and at the very least match but ideally surpass what any other device-maker is doing. It puts Google in a position to set its own singular standard — one befitting of the Pixel’s positioning as the best available Android experience, with the best available support.

And especially once you factor in the fact that Google now uses its own custom-made chips to power current Pixels — thus eliminating a common barrier to providing extended software support, as that can often depend at least in part on the manufacturer of a phone’s processor continuing to support the device’s components — there’s really no great justification for Google not to make a move like this.

Last but not least, consider: Google’s supposedly now “doubling down” on its investment in Pixel devices, according to a recent report at the website The Information. The company is said to be gearing up to more aggressively market and push its products as the most optimal way to experience Android, in an effort to more effectively head off recent U.S. market gains being made by Apple.

All that’s missing is the ecosystem-leading longevity promise — and now more than ever, the pieces are in place to address that.

It’s time, Google. If you really want the Pixel to shine and to exist in a league of its own, without any obvious “buts” around it, this is the move to make. And this is absolutely the moment to make it.

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