The new release of the current generation of mobile operating systems – iOS 15 and Android 12 – brings a host of great features to those devices that support it. But it also  leaves a new generation of devices unable to upgrade to it, so potentially reaching their end-of-life. With e-waste a significant problem, which platform should you choose if you want to keep your phone as long as possible?

iPhones upgrade for the longest

For iOS, the situation is very straightforward. Apple guarantees you at least 5 years of updates, which usually means a newly released phone will get 5 major future versions of iOS. So for example the iPhone 6s (released 2015) is still able to receive the newest iOS version now in 2021. It’s perhaps worth noting that the previous generation to that, the iPhone 6 released in 2014, stopped at iOS 12 which was released in 2018 – so the 5-year promise didn’t always hold.

The manufacturers building Android phones each have their own individual policies for longevity. Samsung, the largest phone manufacturer in the world, guarantees 3 years of updates for almost all of its models. OnePlus guarantees 3 versions of Android and 4 years of security updates. Google guarantees 3 years for its Pixel phones.

But a large part of the Android experience is the Google Play Services. Strictly that’s not part of Android itself, but rather the services which Google adds to it, which represent some fairly fundamental parts of the OS. To western consumers, the delineation is pretty slight as practically every Android phone you can buy has Play Services (the notable exception being newer Huawei devices). And Play Services remains upgradable long after your version of Android has stopped being supported.

Nevertheless it would appear that iPhones last longer than Android phones, in general. But that isn’t the whole story. Because there are big differences in the experience of Android phones vs iPhones running older-than-current versions of their respective OSs.

Android doesn’t need the latest OS

This comes down to how the two platforms support their developers.

When Apple releases new features to its platform, they release them to the latest version of iOS only. For example, in 2019 Apple released SwiftUI. This was an entirely new way to develop user interfaces in apps, and was an enormous step forward compared to the aging system it replaced. It became important to support it, because we could write stronger, better-performing code with fewer possibilities for bugs. The pitfall was of course that it was only released to the current version of iOS.

Developers needed to jump to SwiftUI, so they did. The fall-out was that the apps we produced dropped support for all previous iOS versions. So consumers on versions of iOS prior to the latest were unable to upgrade to the latest version of many of their apps.

This situation wasn’t unique to SwiftUI. Practically all changes to the iOS development platform, large and small, have always been applied to the latest iOS only. When a developer uses any one of the latest features, they make their app incompatible with any prior version of iOS.

So that gives iPhones a “hard stop”. After the 5 years of updates has expired, and you’re no longer on the latest version, your iPhone fast becomes unusable because its apps will stop being supported.

Android applies changes to its development platform very differently.

Android has what is known as the AndroidX libraries. These have wide ranging purposes, but one specific value they provide is the back-porting of all new Android features to older versions of Android. And almost all Android developers make use of AndroidX.

This is why Android apps always look modern and in tune with the latest Android versions, even when running on devices with older versions. And it’s also why most Android apps have enormous backward compatibility.

Most Android apps still support Android 6 for example – that’s a release of Android from 2015. Add to that even just 2 years of updates, and that means that many 8-year-old Android phones can still run the latest apps. Whether their hardware can support it is another matter, but the software certainly can.

To take an example, the Samsung Galaxy S5 from 2014 was upgradeable to Android 6.0. It stopped receiving platform updates in 2016, but even now keeps the latest version of Google Play Services and remains capable of running most modern apps.

In conclusion, there’s no a clear cut advantage to either platform for longevity. If your definition of longevity is having the latest OS installed, then iPhones generally outlast Android phones. But if running the latest apps is more important than OS features, then Android will last longer.