Apple, Google and the kings of 'abandonware'

shanty town

"Abandonware". It’s the scourge of the industry. Every time a vendor abandons a software product, a puppy dies. Or an orphan. Or a Java developer.

Regardless, nobody likes to see their favorite app/game/platform get left behind. It’s the worst kind of techie betrayal. You spend days, weeks or even months mastering a product only to have the virtual rug pulled out from under you.

Cue the Soup Nazi: "No more updates for you!"

Some would argue that it’s the nature of the business. Technology changes, and companies must adapt their offerings accordingly. Sometimes this means discontinuing an underperforming product or service that has outlived its usefulness, even when said product has a loyal user base.

Frankly, I have no problem with vendors declaring EOL for products that are truly unsalvageable. However, in our brave new "Post-PC" world device-centric computing, the specter of abandonware has now crossed over the threshold from the Ethereal (software) realm to that of the Physical (hardware).

In other words, manufacturers of tablets and smartphones are now orphaning products at a dizzying pace, leaving behind a trail of angry customers who have been screwed-over in the process.

Case in point: Blackberry. The once proud (some would say "too proud") smartphone pioneer trumpeted the arrival of its cutting-edge (at the time) Playbook tablet, only to dump it unceremoniously after barely a year on the market. Sure, the company-formerly-known-as-RIM got hammered by the media for shipping a product with missing features and a poorly-defined value proposition. And yes, the device got steamrolled vs. the juggernaut that was Apple iPad 2.

But despite all the bad press, the Playbook still managed to attract a loyal following of more than two million users, many of whom jumped on the bandwagon when Blackberry promised a seamless upgrade path to Blackberry 10. So when the company went back on that promise in early 2013, many in the Playbook community (including yours truly) were stunned. Needless to say, the folks in Waterloo lost a lot of fans that day.

Of course, Blackberry isn’t alone in the abandonware blame game. Google, by virtue of its OEM licensing model for Android, is perhaps the industry’s biggest offender, albeit indirectly. Because manufacturers must customize Android to fit their specific devices, they have total control over the platform upgrade cycle.

As an Android device customer, you’re lucky to get one or maybe two OS updates over the life of your device. In my case, I got Ice Cream Sandwich on my Acer Iconia Tab A200, but never Jelly Bean or KitKat. And since there’s no such thing as a generic Android image (a la Microsoft or even Linux), average users are stuck at whatever version a vendor deems to be the final destination for their product (fortunately, there are still uses for such devices).

Note: More savvy users can find satisfaction through homebrew channels and ports of AOSP, CyanogenMod, etc. But installing these requires a level of technical knowledge that’s beyond the average user, and the images themselves are often available for only the most popular devices.

Even Apple, that stalwart of platform longevity, is guilty of abandoning some of its more popular platforms. My iPod Touch 4G will never see iOS7, let alone 8 or 9, which is fine with me as long as I can still run the majority of App Store offerings. However, with more and more new app submissions requiring iOS7 or later (the latest example: Skype for iOS), my iPod is rapidly descending into abandonware territory.

A lone bright spot in my personal abandonware dealings has been my Windows tablet. Since buying the device in early 2013, I’ve received no less than two major platform updates (Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Update 1), along with myriad minor updates and fixes. And given the open nature of the PC architecture (no locked bootloaders here), I can look forward to continued upgrades through Windows 8.1 Update 2, Window 9, and beyond.

In fact, outside of the unfortunate Windows Phone 7 dead-end device fiasco, Microsoft has provided the least jarring upgrade process of any industry player, Post-PC or otherwise. Even if a future Windows version isn’t officially supported on a particular device, chances are there will be a way to finagle it to work.

Such is the beauty of the much-maligned PC architecture -- and another reason why I’ll be recommending Windows 8.x devices to my friends and family this coming holiday season.

Photo Credit: arindambanerjee/Shutterstock

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