By | November 27, 2023
Android 14 easter egg on OnePlus 11 with OxygenOS 14 beta.

Tushar Mehta / Digital Trends

Software updates, the lifeblood of our phones, are a confusing mess – and we need to let manufacturers know there’s a problem. Those are bold words for a seemingly boring aspect of our phones, but it’s true.

We absolutely need updates regularly delivered to our phones, but we don’t need questionable features to become “newsworthy” events, and updates need to be better presented to the people who actually use the device itself.

Marketing takes over

ColorOS 14 splash page on Oppo Find N2.
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

I’ve been using Android 14 on the Oppo Find N2 Flip with the company’s new ColorOS 14 interface, and honestly, it doesn’t look or feel that different from ColorOS 13 over Android 13. It’s not the first time I’ve decided to use a “new” version of an existing platform and wondered what the fuss was about, and it’s certainly not a unique situation for Oppo. It just happens to be a timely example of what is happening.

Save on everything from laptops and tablets, to coffee makers and air purifiers, and smart home essentials like the Amazon Echo.

What’s new in ColorOS 14? There are some new colors and ringtones, a new always-on screen, a new way to create a file in Notes, and some performance tweaks. These get flashy names like Trinity Engine, Aqua Dynamics and Aquamorphic Sound Style. Otherwise, there are slight differences in layout, fonts and design, but the key word is differences, not improvements. Underneath this is Google’s core Android 14 experience, which builds on changes introduced in Android 12 and Android 13, and you need an intimate knowledge of those two versions to spot the changes.

ColorOS 14 has been very reliable on the Find N2 Flip, ringtones sound very good and overall performance has been good. It’s what a software update should be – fast and smooth, no obvious bugs and seamless in its integration – but I’ve struggled to find any meaningful changes that affect my daily use, and outside of the lengthy download and installation process, I probably wouldn’t have been aware that the software had changed at all if I didn’t already know it was happening. This is tempered by the fact that the OS doesn’t introduce features or changes in any obvious way, so the average person probably wouldn’t know what’s new either.

Smartphone updates are important

The Android 14 logo on the Google Pixel 8 Pro.
Joe Maring / Digital Trends

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy that Oppo has pushed to get Android 14 out before the end of the year with an updated UI and that it works so well. Providing prompt updates is important and a sign manufacturer takes device security and long-term ownership seriously. Software updates must happen, and we’ve been working for years to get manufacturers to pay attention to them.

But lately, as the software matures and major changes are less likely to happen on a yearly basis, these updates seem to have been handed over to marketing teams, with every release given a level of fanfare that suggests it’s something to applaud. . That’s understandable, but behind this there seems to be a push to add more to the software, just so it can be hyped up. Worse, the way updates are presented to the person on the street who owns the phone in question, but doesn’t have access to the press release, is subpar.

There is usually nothing at all on the phone that tells you about it. The lack of commitment to the end user suggests that the update is not that important, and the intention is just to get the media talking about the update and therefore promote the company. There’s also been a worrying trend this year of software updates being announced and released with missing features, like Double Tap in Apple’s watchOS 10 and various photo tools on the new Google Pixel 8 and Google Pixel 8 Pro. This is a slightly different problem, but it can amount to the same confusion or legitimate ambivalence towards software updates and features from those outside the industry.

Some companies do it well

The "Get the most out of your Pixel" side on the Pixel 5.
How Android 14 was introduced on the Google Pixel 5. Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

I understand that showing updates is important. New features can attract people to a product, announcements often need to be timed with events, and marketing activities help fund development. I’m also aware that I’m seeing more updates because I’m using multiple devices, but it also makes me realize that there needs to be some serious changes to how software updates are handled to make them more relevant, interesting, and useful to more people.

Are there any companies that present software updates properly to common people? Nothing makes it really good. When a software update comes to Nothing Phone 1 or Nothing Phone 2, there’s a clear list of the changes right there before your download. It’s short and to the point, and I like the fun emojis that make it manageable and friendly. To introduce Nothing OS 2.5, it unveiled the changes in a four-minute segment in a YouTube video for all to see. You might want to try it on your own phone while you watch.

An update is coming to the Nothing Phone 2.
A notification about an update on Nothing Phone 2. Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

Google’s Android feature reductions aren’t always that exciting, but I like the way it presents the updates on a single web page, with links to essential apps and examples of how the features work. In contrast, Apple’s iOS 17 page looks great, but is incredibly information-dense and not very interactive, while Samsung’s One UI 5 information is a giant wall of text and not engaging at all.

Going through these sites makes me think that if the features and changes are so difficult to present legibly and are almost never explained on the device itself, it means that the update is overly complicated due to a need to look like everything is new and different when is it really not? Even important updates are not always treated well. Android 14 and OneUI 6 arrived on my Galaxy S23 Ultra as I wrote this article, and while I was happy to see a long list of the changes on the update page, there was no further introduction once you’d updated and restarted the phone despite some pretty big changes.

Why this is a problem

The "Your Pixel just got more useful" pop-ups on Pixel 5.
How Android 14 was introduced on the Pixel 5. Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

Software updates are an important part of our phones; we should know what they contain, and they need to be tested by the media and beta testers to ensure bugs are discovered and squashed. It is important to assess them before they reach phones owned by the public. We’re also in a much better position today than a decade ago, when updates were considered an option and phones with outdated software were common.

But they remain a confusing and difficult problem. Software updates now sometimes come with only general or basic visible changes and little explanation, but are still promoted. There is a reluctance to just deliver an update if all the changes are under the skin. The current approach diminishes the importance of updates, and they end up being ignored or confused for people who aren’t deeply connected to the tech world or the device ecosystem.

I’m not alone or the first to realize this is a problem. A Kaspersky report showed statistics where 77% of respondents wanted silent updates in the background, and 69% wanted clearer explanations of what had changed after installation. Now that manufacturers are committing to more software updates over longer periods of time, addressing these issues becomes even more important.

What can be done?

iPhone connected on top of MacBook shows Apple logo during a software update reset.
Viktor Szabo / Unsplash

What is the solution? Perhaps manufacturers should look at one or two major updates per year, with all new features planned inside, big and small. The more frequent essential, but boring updates should probably come quietly. Everything needs an explainer and major updates need a guide. Updates Can be a publicity worthy event if handled properly.

Apple ties its main updates to the arrival of a new iPhone, giving the new software meaning and relevance and helping to demonstrate new features as well. Google’s “Make the most …” introduction found on updated Pixel phones shouldn’t be an outlier – it should be the standard. When OneUI 6 and Android 14 arrived, there was a long list of changes on the update page, but this won’t appeal to people with limited time or understanding of the system. The fact that software updates – and how they are delivered and explained – vary so much between all devices only shows that the system needs to be streamlined and improved.

We should all care about software updates, and that includes manufacturers. But we don’t need to be artificially forced to pay attention just because one arrives. If there is something worth telling the end user about, make it clear on the phone what’s new. If it’s not there, just send it – there’s no need to embellish it. The old way of ignoring the need for software updates took time and effort to change, but the shift to heavily promoting, but not thoroughly explaining, updates also needs to be addressed before everyone stops caring about – and possibly ignoring – software updates altogether.

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