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Fixing Flagship Android Phones Might Get More Practical

Until recently, if you wanted to buy an Android phone that would get OS and security updates for any reasonable amount of time, you had to buy Google’s own Pixel phones.

It didn’t matter how much money you spent on your device—Google would announce a new version of Android, and then you’d wait, and wait, and maybe never see the upgrade at all. There were a lot of parties you could blame: manufacturers that profit from hardware, not software; carriers dragging their feet and charging fees; and chip makers, who were similarly loathe to spend time and money on upgrading when there were new Systems on a Chip (SoC) to sell.

Knowing this, or experiencing it yourself, makes an Android phone less appealing to fix. Maybe you can swap out the battery or screen, or even fix some water damage. But Android phones don’t hold their value, because their software goes out of date in just a couple years, which makes them less valuable, and so on. It’s a bad cycle for owners, for e-waste, for everybody.

So it’s great to see that Qualcomm, the maker of most every flagship Android phone’s core chip, has announced, with Google, three years of OS updates and four years of security updates. Assuming they keep to their word, a phone you pay a lot of money for today will be eligible for three annual OS updates, and can stay up to date with security patches for four years. Companies could previously work out their own agreements with Qualcomm to update their phones, as pointed out by the Android Police blog, but now it’s a broad offering. It’s not at the Apple level of five years of OS updates and seven years of security for iPhones, but it’s a big step forward.

While the announcement applies at first to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 SoC, a 5G-sporting chip due inside flagships like the upcoming OnePlus 9, Qualcomm PR told Ars Technica that the agreement will apply to all of Qualcomm’s future chips, including lower-tier models. Which is nice, because manufacturing a “cheap” phone takes just about the same energy and raw, rare materials as manufacturing a “flagship.”

Don’t worry, there is still plenty of work to be done in making Android phones less disposable. Qualcomm, despite its ambitions, does not power every notable Android smartphone. Samsung makes its own Exynos, Huawei has HiSilicon, and MediaTek powers many budget-minded devices. And while Google and Qualcomm will provide the core architecture updates needed to upgrade a phone to the next OS, the manufacturer of the phone has to cover the rest of the distance to a full upgrade. Google’s Project Treble and Project Mainline should have reduced the amount of lift needed for phone makers to upgrade their devices. Certainly, most Android phone makers have nowhere to go but up.

In the end, this should mean one less multi-party complication to blame for Android phones not getting updates. You may now more freely blame the manufacturers themselves for putting out a device they don’t support for any reasonable amount of time. And you can support those phone makers who support responsible devices with your purchases, and keep your Androids alive even longer by fixing them.

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