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Waiting on Android "O"

Waiting on Android "O"

For years, I preferred Android over iPhone, usually citing its customizability and availability from a large number of manufacturers. This stands in stark contrast to iPhone, which has notably fewer customization options than Android and is only made by Apple. IPhone has no homescreen widgets; non-App Store apps are very difficult to install; it has no centralized storage; and the list goes on. There is one area in which iPhone continues to outshine Android though: security.

Because Apple makes their own devices and designs their own bespoke operating system (iOS) to work more or less seamlessly with their hardware, they have total control over critical security and system updates. When they detect or are informed of a serious flaw in their software, they can push out an update to all Apple devices at once.

This stands in stark contrast to Android. When the iPhone was released and took the world by storm, Google knew the only way they could compete was to adopt the opposite strategy from Apple, namely, making Android's operating system free, open source, and completely customizable by the various manufacturers. That's why iPhones are always iPhones, but Android phones vary wildly in design, features, internals, and software. A phone manufactured by Samsung looks and acts very differently from a phone designed by Lenovo, even though they are both running Android.

Google's strategy has succeeded. Android is the most-used mobile operating system in the world. There's a problem, though. Android is just as prone to security issues as iOS—more so, in fact, because it is so widely used. Google releases security updates when these issues arise, but they have no direct channel to devices manufactured by third parties, again, like Samsung or Lenovo (or Sony or Huawei or LG or HTC and so forth). These companies all have their flagship models, such as the Samsung Galaxy S line, LG G line, or Moto Z line, to name just a few, all of which run into the hundreds of dollars. They are the most advanced, most expensive, and most likely to receive timely security updates from their respective makers.Smart Phone

Then, enter the $20 Android smartphones you can get from convenience and drug stores. Some of them are "Brand X" Chinese phones from manufacturers you've never heard of; others are from the better-known companies named above. Because the profit margins on these phones are razor thin, they almost never get the security updates needed to keep them safe. This, unfortunately, sees poor or fixed-income individuals with access only to the devices that are the least likely to keep them safe.

There is a solution in sight, however: Android O. Google names each of its major Android releases after the next letter in the alphabet and code-names them with a sweet or dessert. Android L was "Lollipop," M was "Marshmallow;" N, the current release, is "Nougat." The digerati hope that version O will be "Oreo," what with Google having named Android K "Kit Kat," but this is not yet confirmed.

The name aside, Android O's killer feature is that Google is finally taking the reins of Android back from its third-party hardware makers and installing a direct update channel from them to the operating system, regardless of who makes the device. That means Android O phones will not be slaves to their hardware maker's whims or lack thereof, when it comes to always being secure. When a security update is issued for devices running Android O, Google doesn't have to wait on the device makers, they can update them all on their own.    

To be frank, this is a problem that could have been and should have been addressed years ago. It's left me, at least in the short term, with a taste for iPhone over Android. iPhones are expensive, though, with the cheapest up-to-date model, the 4-inch "SE," starting at $399. That said, I won't even consider another Android phone again until Android O phones are available and proven to always get the most recent security updates.

My point, after all that, is you should hold off on buying a new Android handset until version O is released, probably later this year. It will arrive first on Google’s flagship device, the upcoming Pixel 2, and then move on to the first generation Pixel, the Nexus 6P and 5X. Third-party flagship devices will get it after that. It’s got a lot of other great features, but its improved security is far and away the most exciting thing about it. If only it hadn’t taken ten years to get here.