32 votes

Why aren't smartphones like PCs where you have choice over your OS and get updates directly from OS vendor?

I can install Linux or Windows or even BSD on my laptop without much hassle, and get the updates directly from the OS vendors.

This isn't the case for smartphones. You don't have choice over your OS. You don't even get android updates directly from Google, and have to wait for device manufacturers to release the updates. Why is it so?

34 comments

  1. [5]
    Greg Link
    The manufacturers would love to lock you in on the desktop as well - Apple, Google, and (perhaps most notably) Microsoft have all made overtures in that direction over the years, but they've never...

    The manufacturers would love to lock you in on the desktop as well - Apple, Google, and (perhaps most notably) Microsoft have all made overtures in that direction over the years, but they've never quite managed it.

    Why were they successful on smartphones? Because those came of age when there were already a few dominant behemoths in the tech world who had the ability to make the lock in happen.

    Why weren't they successful on desktops & laptops? A few reasons:

    • The PC market as a whole was smaller and much more fragmented when it started - there was more real competition, and attempts at monopolising (or even duopolising, as with the modern smartphone market) were more difficult. Research institutions were also instrumental consumers in the early computer market in a way that they never were for smartphones.

    • PCs have always been production tools of one kind or another: spreadsheets, documents, software, music, video. A relatively large amount of openness and local control is valuable in that context - and although that often doesn't directly extent to changing the OS, the Venn diagram of the two needs has a very large overlap. Phones are generally used more for consumption (with the notable exception of photos).

    • It's extremely difficult to build your own phone, but relatively easy to build your own PC. The latter effectively forces the OS to be at least somewhat decoupled from the hardware.

    All that said, the push to bring a sizable chunk of consumers inside the walled garden is still happening. Apple are approaching it from two sides, with the Mac App Store and potential custom chips to lock down the laptop side, and the iPad Pro to shift the tablet market towards production as well as consumption. Microsoft are shifting to subscription models so that you're paying them regardless of whether you use the software. It's unlikely they'll ever completely close down the ecosystem, simply because developers still need something to write the software on, but I can envisage a lot of consumers ending up firmly locked in within a few years.

    37 votes
    1. Kiloku Link Parent
      There were also strong anti-trust and monopoly busting actions on tech giants when they grew too big. This doesn't happen nearly as much these days.

      There were also strong anti-trust and monopoly busting actions on tech giants when they grew too big. This doesn't happen nearly as much these days.

      12 votes
    2. [3]
      vakieh Link Parent
      Why most notably Microsoft? Apple are the ones who have truly managed it.

      Why most notably Microsoft? Apple are the ones who have truly managed it.

      1. masochist Link Parent
        Apple haven't really managed it. You can absolutely install anything you want on your Mac. Apple even has first party support for putting Windows on your Mac; it's called Boot Camp. Microsoft are...

        Apple haven't really managed it. You can absolutely install anything you want on your Mac. Apple even has first party support for putting Windows on your Mac; it's called Boot Camp. Microsoft are the ones who have made a lot of effort--particularly in the 1990s and early 2000s--that would actively prevent you from installing anything other than a Microsoft OS on your computer. And they succeeded in some limited ways. Some machines you just can't install anything other than Windows on. On hardware that you own. Thankfully things didn't go that way for most hardware. Beyond this, they also spread a lot of FUD about open source, going so far to call it malware. This all happened under Gates and Ballmer. Ballmer was not a nice person.

        I really don't appreciate this uninformed Apple hate bandwagoning.

        5 votes
      2. Greg Link Parent
        Largely because MS have long had the dominant market position in the PC space, and make their money specifically on software rather than hardware, so they've had the most opportunity and incentive...

        Largely because MS have long had the dominant market position in the PC space, and make their money specifically on software rather than hardware, so they've had the most opportunity and incentive to push an artificial lock in over the years. Among other things, they've tried hardware DRM, charging per PC sold whether or not it actually had MS software installed, threatening partners who offered Linux as an option, and most recently locking down the bootloader.

        Apple, on the other hand, actively provide drivers and support software to run Windows on their hardware and haven't (to my knowledge) done anything to limit Linux even back in the PowerPC days. Not that I think they wouldn't go for full lockdown if and when they believe it'd be a commercial benefit for them, just that they aren't the ones who've been pushing it so far.

        1 vote
  2. [6]
    patience_limited Link
    One neglected piece of the discussion so far is the middle layer of cellular carriers. They've gotten to dictate the hardware which can connect to their networks, and have distribution control...

    One neglected piece of the discussion so far is the middle layer of cellular carriers.

    They've gotten to dictate the hardware which can connect to their networks, and have distribution control over phone operating systems. It's been a substantial cause of fragmentation in the Android ecosystem. Carrier bloatware, ostensibly to provide services, may be used to manage the device's connection to the carrier's cellular network (including data metering), and, not incidentally, provide another avenue for data-harvesting.

    While it's possible to disentangle your OS from this layer, you're still subject to less reliability in ROMs, roots, and drivers if you do so.

    17 votes
    1. masochist Link Parent
      This is absolutely true. Apple was only able to negotiate control over software updates with AT&T (and only AT&T at the time) because of their success in other markets (namely the iPod at the...

      This is absolutely true. Apple was only able to negotiate control over software updates with AT&T (and only AT&T at the time) because of their success in other markets (namely the iPod at the time). Once the other carriers saw how much money Apple was swimming in, Scrooge McDuck style, with the iPhone, they started to be willing to cede software control for a cut of those infinite profits.

      9 votes
    2. [2]
      Akir Link Parent
      AFAIK, that isn't really true - at least in the US. Otherwise you would be forced to buy your phone from the carrier. You are able to bring your own device, and this has been a legal for at least...

      One neglected piece of the discussion so far is the middle layer of cellular carriers.

      They've gotten to dictate the hardware which can connect to their networks, and have distribution control over phone operating systems.

      AFAIK, that isn't really true - at least in the US. Otherwise you would be forced to buy your phone from the carrier. You are able to bring your own device, and this has been a legal for at least a decade.

      That being said, you are right about how carriers muck up the software on the phones they sell. That's why I always recommend against buying those versions.

      2 votes
      1. patience_limited (edited ) Link Parent
        Unfortunately, I'm on Verizon's network (need the nationwide coverage for work). They're still too fussy about BYOD, not to mention the whole CDMA problem. Verizon still has a relatively limited...

        Unfortunately, I'm on Verizon's network (need the nationwide coverage for work).

        They're still too fussy about BYOD, not to mention the whole CDMA problem. Verizon still has a relatively limited number of compatible phones.

        Thankfully, they're finally retiring CDMA in favor of the VoLTE standard, though that's going to screw older device users. Still trying to figure out how proprietary the HD Voice implementation is.

        4 votes
    3. [2]
      heydabop Link Parent
      All GSM network operators are required to let any GSM compliant device onto their network. It's simple to buy a non-carrier branded phone from a manufacturer and then use it on GSM carriers...

      They've gotten to dictate the hardware which can connect to their networks, and have distribution control over phone operating systems.

      All GSM network operators are required to let any GSM compliant device onto their network. It's simple to buy a non-carrier branded phone from a manufacturer and then use it on GSM carriers without their bloatware or OS updates.

      However many people still buy direct from their carrier and suffer all this because a) it's a little more convenient b) we live in a county (the US) where paying for something when you buy it is unheard of and carriers offer 2 year payment plans and c) they don't care. Hell some people dislike software updates because it changes how their phone works and looks. They're blissfully ignorant of new features or security updates, they just want the call, text, and camera buttons to look the same and be in the same place.

      1 vote
      1. patience_limited Link Parent
        As I noted, until recently, the US wasn't exclusively using GSM or later standards. There's also the impact of what spectrum your cellular carrier operates on; not all phones are compatible with...

        As I noted, until recently, the US wasn't exclusively using GSM or later standards.

        There's also the impact of what spectrum your cellular carrier operates on; not all phones are compatible with all bands.

        And I ran into this as recently as a couple of months ago, looking at whether I could use a Huawei phone on Verizon's network. Answer, no, even with VoLTE compatibility only.

  3. Akir Link
    It's because SoC manufacturers want their products to be black boxes because it "protects their IP". With every chip they release a "board support package" which is basically a complete operating...

    It's because SoC manufacturers want their products to be black boxes because it "protects their IP". With every chip they release a "board support package" which is basically a complete operating system that OEMs will customize to fit their needs.

    In other words, each SoC has essentially been Tivoized.

    14 votes
  4. [4]
    apoctr Link
    There's no incentive for manufacturers, for the small minority of users who would change OS.

    Why is it so?

    There's no incentive for manufacturers, for the small minority of users who would change OS.

    10 votes
    1. [3]
      Soptik Link Parent
      Well, you could say the same about most PC users.

      Well, you could say the same about most PC users.

      6 votes
      1. [2]
        apoctr Link Parent
        I imagine it's because on desktop the people selling you the computer aren't usually the ones developing the OS that comes with it. Samsung want you to keep using their version of Android so you...

        I imagine it's because on desktop the people selling you the computer aren't usually the ones developing the OS that comes with it. Samsung want you to keep using their version of Android so you stay in their ecosystem, for example.

        4 votes
        1. Grand0rbiter (edited ) Link Parent
          I don't think this is exactly what OP is talking about. I unlocked all of my phones, but it isn't an easy job. You are still locked into Android. Even if you use the Samsung version, it's still...

          I don't think this is exactly what OP is talking about. I unlocked all of my phones, but it isn't an easy job. You are still locked into Android. Even if you use the Samsung version, it's still Android. You can remove and change to LineageOS, pure AOSP, but it's still Android. For the regular user, there's no difference.

          I think he is asking about a complete different OS. Which your answer fits as well, but i don't think it's entirely true.

          The main reason it's harder to have alternatives is just greed. Android might be open source, but everything that works around it are black boxes.

          4 votes
  5. KapteinB Link
    There are some exceptions. Sony has a few models where they give you access to the boot loader and a flash tool. I'm running Sailfish on my Xperia X, getting my updates directly from Jolla.

    There are some exceptions. Sony has a few models where they give you access to the boot loader and a flash tool. I'm running Sailfish on my Xperia X, getting my updates directly from Jolla.

    6 votes
  6. [5]
    meghan Link
    On one hand your argument your premise is just false because you can root your phone and put whatever OS you want. On the other hand, it's because of Google. Architecturally early versions of...

    On one hand your argument your premise is just false because you can root your phone and put whatever OS you want.

    On the other hand, it's because of Google. Architecturally early versions of Android were just thrown together and the ecosystem is still feeling the pains. Android, as you might know, is written in Java. While that doesn't particularly matter, it makes this easier to explain. Android does what an OS should do and abstracts away the hardware so that app developers can focus on making apps. However there's a layer of code that bridges the Android code and the Linux kernel that runs the phone. And up until Android 8, this had to be done manually for the most part by device manufacturers that wanted to install Android on their devices. With the introduction of Android 8, this just became a lot easier to do.

    As well as the lock-in that many manufacturers are trying to push, as others have mentioned.

    4 votes
    1. spctrvl (edited ) Link Parent
      While this is technically true, it reminds me of the old Ford quote, "You can get it in any color you want, so long as it's black."

      On one hand your argument your premise is just false because you can root your phone and put whatever OS you want.

      While this is technically true, it reminds me of the old Ford quote, "You can get it in any color you want, so long as it's black."

      8 votes
    2. [3]
      secondHalfOfMyBrain Link Parent
      Interesting perspective, thank you. AFAIK Linux is mainly a huge collection of drivers for endless componentry. GNU is the core OS in terms of how things work and the desktop is more than lipstick...

      Interesting perspective, thank you.

      AFAIK Linux is mainly a huge collection of drivers for endless componentry. GNU is the core OS in terms of how things work and the desktop is more than lipstick but not in anyway connected to the metal.

      How far off am I?

      1 vote
      1. meghan Link Parent
        Linux is the kernel that provides the interface and runtime for running programs. Providing the implementations for thinks like process management, networking, file operations, etc. GNU is the...

        Linux is the kernel that provides the interface and runtime for running programs. Providing the implementations for thinks like process management, networking, file operations, etc. GNU is the suite of applications that, when added on top of Linux, make for a complete system: gcc, wget, nano, grep, awk, and more. For a complete list see https://www.gnu.org/software/software.html. And the desktop is simply a graphical interface that provides visual access to the system, lest you'd only have a terminal/command prompt without one.

        2 votes
      2. Diff Link Parent
        Linux is the kernel, kernels manage the hardware and running processes. GNU is a tiny part of the software that makes up the userland that you interact with. Just a bunch of handy utilities and...

        Linux is the kernel, kernels manage the hardware and running processes. GNU is a tiny part of the software that makes up the userland that you interact with. Just a bunch of handy utilities and libraries. The GNU libc and coreutils stuff just happens to be the most common/popular on desktops, workstations, and servers. The desktop software is just more userland software that gives you a visual way to interact with the system beyond plain text.

        2 votes
  7. [9]
    nsz (edited ) Link
    A point I've not seen mentioned is that tighter control over hardware allows for better performance optimisation, a pretty weak processor in a smartphone goes a lot father that anything running a...

    A point I've not seen mentioned is that tighter control over hardware allows for better performance optimisation, a pretty weak processor in a smartphone goes a lot father that anything running a modern OS on similar specs, there's lots of baggage that comes with supporting everything.

    4 votes
    1. [8]
      Octofox Link Parent
      Preventing people from changing the OS does not stop you from making your own OS faster. Also I would like to see some stats to back up that phones are faster than desktop OSs. A Linux install...

      Preventing people from changing the OS does not stop you from making your own OS faster. Also I would like to see some stats to back up that phones are faster than desktop OSs. A Linux install runs amazingly fast on a huge range of devices. Maybe you are confusing windows's slowness with some innate property of desktop OSs

      2 votes
      1. [7]
        nsz Link Parent
        Yeah it's possible, I've not got very much experience with Linux. But the few times I attempted an install it (specifically laptops) was a complete nightmare with drivers missing all over the...

        Yeah it's possible, I've not got very much experience with Linux. But the few times I attempted an install it (specifically laptops) was a complete nightmare with drivers missing all over the place and basic functions like adjusting screen brightness missing. It also decided the default setting for my graphics card should be at 100% cranked to the max, made it completely unusable. Now a phone has way more peripheral sensors, don't even want to imagine the driver mess that would come from that.

        As far a stats, open up google maps and browse around on a phone, now do the same on pretty much any desktop/laptop and the phone is almost always smoother&faster, but will invariably have weaker processor. Sure maybe the comparison is app vs web browser but in the end what difference does it make if your still stuck with the laggy crap on a desktop, that's the point of phones they take advantage of specialised software to increase performance.

        EDIT: I just realised I might have argued besides the point, conflating parts interchangeability with os, though I think the two a linked.

        1. Octofox Link Parent
          This is largely the fault of hardware makers being very secretive about their hardware and firmware so linux devs have to put in a huge amount of work reverse engineering everything. If hardware...

          But the few times I attempted an install it (specifically laptops) was a complete nightmare with drivers missing all over the place and basic functions like adjusting screen brightness missing.

          This is largely the fault of hardware makers being very secretive about their hardware and firmware so linux devs have to put in a huge amount of work reverse engineering everything. If hardware makers open sourced their spec sheets and drivers everything would just work perfect on linux.

          Sure maybe the comparison is app vs web browser but in the end what difference does it make if your still stuck with the laggy crap on a desktop

          Its 100% that. Websites run JS which is very very slow. Apps like google maps run native code which will always be faster. This has nothing to do with how locked down phones are. Its just how google happened to make google maps.

          2 votes
        2. [5]
          Grand0rbiter Link Parent
          It's not the fault of the OS. You are saying that a google service (maps), on a google app, using a google OS is smoother. Well... that's what they do to become a monopoly. Make it harder for...

          It's not the fault of the OS.

          You are saying that a google service (maps), on a google app, using a google OS is smoother. Well... that's what they do to become a monopoly. Make it harder for everybody. It's not because of tighter control over hardware, is about actively making things difficult for competitors.

          1. [4]
            nsz Link Parent
            That's my point a hardware and software monopoly make things more efficient, I had no idea this is so controversial. I'm not trying to knock linux devs or foss just acknowledging the reality,...

            That's my point a hardware and software monopoly make things more efficient, I had no idea this is so controversial. I'm not trying to knock linux devs or foss just acknowledging the reality, google has way more racecourses coupled with complete control of course they can make something more efficient/faster.

            1. [3]
              Grand0rbiter Link Parent
              Sure, but it's not exactly more efficient because they are better at it. It's more efficient because they make things difficult for other people to work with it. There's a big difference. You...

              Sure, but it's not exactly more efficient because they are better at it. It's more efficient because they make things difficult for other people to work with it. There's a big difference. You being really secretive and protective about something to not give the opportunity to other people to do better than you is not exactly efficiency.

              You can see that being more efficient doesn't have anything to do with hardware and software monopoly, since the most powerful and efficient computers and servers runs Linux (and the most reliable servers runs BSD, netflix included), which is a open source project. Microsoft had the manpower, there's other OSes for supercomputers and servers and Linux is still on the lead there.

              Linux is not doing that by making things difficult for competitors.

              For us, end users, competition is always better.

              1. [2]
                nsz Link Parent
                I think we are arguing pas each other. My original comment was; I can see now how it's not entirely on topic with what op posted hence this. Now I feel I've been dragged into a discussion I'm not...

                I think we are arguing pas each other. My original comment was;

                tighter control over hardware allows for better performance optimisation

                I can see now how it's not entirely on topic with what op posted hence this. Now I feel I've been dragged into a discussion I'm not sure I oppose to nor have the knowledge to make a proper argument.

                To respond to this comment; I'm not arguing being secretive leads to better performance but control does, google being able to dictate what chipsets are supported etc. This makes a difference because they can pick the exact hardware that meshes well with the software which have full control over. Compare that to windows which needs to support such a wide variety, performance looses are inevitable.

                1 vote
  8. [3]
    teaearlgraycold Link
    With Android phones you often have the ability to install an alternative distribution of Android and then receive updates directly from the team making that operating system.

    With Android phones you often have the ability to install an alternative distribution of Android and then receive updates directly from the team making that operating system.

    1 vote
    1. [2]
      Grand0rbiter Link Parent
      It's still Android. The same way that Debian, Ubuntu, Void, Slackware are all Linux. You're not putting a different OS.

      It's still Android. The same way that Debian, Ubuntu, Void, Slackware are all Linux.

      You're not putting a different OS.

      3 votes
      1. teaearlgraycold Link Parent
        Depends how you define a unique OS I guess.

        Depends how you define a unique OS I guess.

        1 vote