Android 12 is one of the most ambitious updates to the platform in recent history, bringing a major design overhaul to every corner of the operating system. It has also been one of the most difficult releases of the Android operating system in recent years. Both Samsung and OnePlus paused the release of their Android 12-based stable updates amid serious bug reports. Google itself has addressed a long list of bug reports from Pixel 6 owners, just as it tries to convince them that it’s finally figured out how to build a truly premium phone. What the hell is going on?
The short answer is that there are some unique factors that complicate the game this year, but also that Android is inherently a bit messy – that just comes with the territory when you’re designing a lovely public park versus Apple’s walled garden. Despite a refreshed look and some cool new high-end phones, Android is still Android: the good and the bad.
The Android 12 rollout kicked off fairly predictably with a formal announcement at Google I/O in May 2021. After that, the timeline looks a bit different from previous years. A fully stable release came a month later than usual, on October 4, 2021. The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro launched later that month with Android 12 preloaded. A handful of bugs were to be expected, but Google’s December pixel update included dozens of fixes even though Google had that extra month.
Worse yet, the December patch proved problematic as some Pixel 6 owners complained of network connection issues that were made worse by the update. Google stopped the update and then removed it from its archive to prevent manual downloads. When asked, the company did not offer an explanation for the problematic update, but pointed to a statement that a fix will be coming in late January that will include all of the bug fixes planned for the December patch.
Google is not the only one that has problems with its new operating system. Samsung users in South Korea have reported serious issues with their Galaxy Fold 3 and Flip 3 devices after installing the One UI 4.0 (Android 12) stable release, including flickering screens and bricked phones. Samsung acknowledged the problem and initially responded by releasing a fourth beta version of the software to fix bugs introduced by the stable version.
OnePlus’ stable release wasn’t all that stable, either: its Android 12 skin was so buggy that the company halted its release, like Google, after it was widely criticized. In a brief statement, OnePlus explained that the fact that this release marked the company’s attempt to integrate its OxygenOS and ColorOS code bases into the same build “led to a non-smooth software experience” and that its software “collected feedback from the community and released a new version of OxygenOS 12 within a week to provide a better user experience.”
In each case, these “stable” releases were anything but, and neither of these companies offered many details about what went wrong. To try and figure out what the heck is going on, we talked to misaal rahman, former editor-in-chief of XDA Developers, who is well known for digging into Android code bases and uncovering Google’s secrets. Speaking of the Pixel 6 bugs in particular, Rahman guesses it has a lot to do with the update’s unusually large size. “Many people have called it, myself included, the biggest update to the Android operating system since Android 5.0 Lollipop, and that was many years ago. There are so many massive changes to the interface and feature set.”
It also suggests that Google’s commitment to releasing a new Android update every year may make things worse when it tries to do so much, and the self-imposed one-year development cycle doesn’t leave much wiggle room on the timeline. “They started immediately after Android 11 was released to the public, and they have a fixed cutoff date… After that, they just focus on fixing bugs.” Delay any longer and you risk running into next year’s development cycle.
It’s also possible that the attempt to bring timely Android updates to non-Google devices failed. Android phone owners have been asking for faster updates for a long time: Outside of Google’s Pixel phones and expensive flagships, many devices face long waits for OS updates. Sure enough, the updates have come faster this year. Case in point: Samsung users are used to waiting about three months after a stable Android release to get their One UI update finalized with the new version of the OS, but this year, One UI 4.0 arrived in just one month and half after Android 12. But the way things have been this year, many users would probably have opted for a slower, more stable update rather than a quick, bug-ridden one.
OnePlus, by its own admission, faced unique complications trying to merge Oppo’s ColorOS and OxygenOS while incorporating Android 12 changes. That’s a recipe for mistakes, Rahman explains. “Devices that are upgrading from Android 11 with OxygenOS 11 to OxygenOS 12 are migrating many settings and features.”
To illustrate the issue, it describes a bug that some Realme device owners have encountered: Users who restore settings from an old Android phone when setting up a Realme device sometimes find that the Night Light setting is constantly enabled on their new phone. This happened due to a mismatch between Realme and Google’s open source implementations of Night Light. OxygenOS 12, he suspects, suffered from similar problems. “It’s those kinds of bugs that are plaguing this update.”
While it’s still hard to understand how an update as buggy as OnePlus’s initial OxygenOS 12 release got a “stable” designation, it makes a bit more sense when you consider the daunting challenge of merging two code bases.
While all of these factors likely contributed to an unusually troubled launch, the underlying issue is a familiar one. By its nature, Android is a fragmented ecosystem. There’s no straight line from Android 12 to the Galaxy S21 or OnePlus 9: every major update sees handoffs between the manufacturer, carriers and Google, leading to delays. Initiatives like Project Treble seem to have helped speed up some parts of the process, but unless Google takes drastic action, no one can completely fix the problem.
While OEMs and Google are pushing for updates faster, they’ve also pushed to produce flashier premium devices. OnePlus seems to be separating its “flagships, but cheaper” ethos into two different realms: “flagships” like the 9 Pro and separate “cheaper” phones a la Nord series. Samsung is making a serious attempt to bring foldable devices into the mainstream. Google has positioned the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro as true flagships, with custom processors and a more polished and less quirky design language than previous generations. This buggy OS release risks taking some of the shine off the polished image these device makers hope to cultivate; In fact, the the damage may already be done.
My Pixel 6 Pro has gotten so buggy since it launched in October that I can no longer recommend it for $900. Combined with the last failed update, it’s been a bad experience. My SIM is back on an S21 Ultra until the next review.
— Brownlee Marks (@MKBHD) January 12, 2022
It’s a shame because they have achieved it with the hardware. The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro are two of the best phones Google has ever made. OnePlus’ ambition to create a true flagship competitor has resulted in a refined product that is the genuine article. And this time, Samsung appears to have succeeded in making a foldable phone that has caught the attention of more than just techies. But behind the brilliant hardware, the software experience can still be bumpy at times. That’s easier to forgive on a budget or mid-range phone, but hard to bear on a premium device.
However, this unusually bumpy launch is unlikely to influence any significant number of people to ditch Android; As painful as some of these bugs have been, they’re probably not enough to push users past the hurdles of jumping ship to Apple. Rahman believes that in most cases the ecosystem lockdown is too strong.
“You would miss out on so many apps and services that you pay for. If you have other devices that interact with your smartphone, you would lose access to that, or that access would be diminished in some way. I don’t see it as a major factor in convincing people to move away from a particular device.” Those barriers also exist on Apple’s side, of course. Emails from Apple executives that surfaced recently imply that iMessage remains exclusive to iPhones as a mechanism to keep Apple users with Apple.
Apple has also had its share of software stumbles, to be sure. But it’s generally a more predictable experience, if you’re willing to live within the confines of that walled garden. And there’s the flip side to Android’s fragmented existence: There’s no single entity dictating hardware and software. In the Apple ecosystem, you get what it considers to be the right features at the right time, and that’s it. folding? Maybe in a few years. A rainbow of customizable system colors? Forget this. Life is a little more interesting, if sometimes unpredictable and uneven, outside the garden walls.