Although I still read a lot, during my college sophomore years my reading
habits shifted from novels to more academic works. Indeed, reading dry
textbooks and economic papers for classes often kept me from reading anything
else substantial. Nowadays, I tend to binge read novels: I won't touch a book
for months on end, and suddenly, I'll read 10 novels back to back
At the start of a novel binge, I always follow the same ritual: I take out my
e-reader from its storage box, marvel at the fact the battery is still pretty
full, turn on the WiFi and check if there are OS updates. And I have to admit,
Kobo Inc. (now Rakuten Kobo) has done a stellar job of keeping my e-reader up
to date. I've owned this model (a Kobo Aura 1st
generation) for 7
years now and I'm still running the latest version of Kobo's Linux-based OS.
Having recently had trouble updating my Nexus 5 (also manufactured 7 years ago)
to Android 10
, I asked myself:
Why is my e-reader still getting regular OS updates, while Google stopped
issuing security patches for my smartphone four years ago?
To try to answer this, let us turn to economic incentives
Although not the be-all and end-all some think it is
theory is not a bad tool to analyse this particular problem. Executives at
Google most likely followed a very business-centric logic when they decided to
drop support for the Nexus 5. Likewise, Rakuten Kobo's decision to continue
updating older devices certainly had very little to do with ethics or loyalty
to their user base.
So, what are the incentives that keep Kobo updating devices and why are they
different than smartphone manufacturers'?
A portrait of the current long-term software support offerings for smartphones and e-readers
Before delving deeper in economic theory, let's talk data. I'll be focusing on
2 brands of e-readers, Amazon's Kindle and Rakuten's Kobo. Although the
e-reader market is highly segmented and differs a lot based on geography,
Amazon was in 2015 the clear worldwide leader with 53% of the worldwide
e-reader sales, followed by Rakuten Kobo at 13%
On the smartphone side, I'll be differentiating between Apple's iPhones and
Android devices, taking Google as the barometer for that ecosystem. As mentioned
below, Google is sadly the leader in long-term Android software support.
According to their website
and to this Wikipedia
, the only e-readers Kobo has deprecated are the original
Kobo eReader and the Kobo WiFi N289, both released in 2010. This makes their
oldest still supported device the Kobo Touch, released in 2011. In my book,
that's a pretty good track record. Long-term software support does not seem to
be advertised or to be a clear selling point in their marketing.
According to their website
, Amazon has dropped support for
all 8 devices produced before the Kindle Paperwhite 2nd
first sold in 2013. To put things in perspective, the first Kindle came out in
2007, 3 years before Kobo started selling devices. Like Rakuten Kobo, Amazon
does not make promises of long-term software support as part of their
Apple has a very clear software support policy
for all their
Owners of iPhone, iPad, iPod or Mac products may obtain a service and parts
from Apple or Apple service providers for five years after the product is no
longer sold or longer, where required by law.
This means in the worst-case scenario of buying an iPhone model just as it is
discontinued, one would get a minimum of 5 years of software support.
Google's policy for their Android devices is to provide software support for 3
years after the launch date
. If you buy a Pixel device just
before the new one launches, you could theoretically only get 2 years of
support. In 2018, Google decided OEMs would have to provide security updates
for at least 2 years
after launch, threatening not to license
Google Apps and the Play Store if they didn't comply.
A question of cost structure
From the previous section, we can conclude that in general, e-readers seem to
be supported longer than smartphones, and that Apple does a better job than
Android OEMs, providing support for about twice as long.
Even Fairphone, who's entire business is to build phones designed to last and
to be repaired was not able to keep the Fairphone 1 (2013) updated for more
than a couple years
and seems to be struggling
to keep the
Fairphone 2 (2015) running an up to date version of Android.
Anyone who has ever worked in IT will tell you: maintaining software over time
is hard work and hard work by specialised workers is expensive. Most commercial
electronic devices are sold and developed by for-profit enterprises and
software support all comes down to a question of cost structure. If companies
like Google or Fairphone are to be expected to provide long-term support for
the devices they manufacture, they have to be able to fund their work somehow.
In a perfect world, people would be paying for the cost of said long-term
support, as it would likely be cheaper then buying new devices every few years
and would certainly be better for the planet. Problem is, manufacturers aren't
making them pay for it.
Economists call this type of problem externalities: things that should be
part of the cost of a good, but aren't for one a reason or another. A classic
example of an externality is pollution. Clearly pollution is bad and leads to
horrendous consequences, like climate change. Sane people agree we should
drastically cut our greenhouse gas emissions, and yet, we aren't.
Neo-classical economic theory argues the way to fix externalities like
pollution is to internalise
these costs, in other words, to make people pay
for the "real price" of the goods they buy. In the case of climate change and
pollution, neo-classical economic theory is plain wrong (spoiler alert: it
often is), but this is where band-aids like the carbon tax comes from.
Still, coming back to long-term software support, let's see what would happen
if we were to try to internalise software maintenance costs. We can do this
1 - Include the price of software maintenance in the cost of the device
This is the choice Fairphone makes. This might somewhat work out for them since
they are a very small company, but it cannot scale for the following reasons:
This strategy relies on you giving your money to an enterprise now,
and trusting them to "Do the right thing" years later. As the years
go by, they will eventually look at their books, see how much ongoing
maintenance is costing them, drop support for the device, apologise and move
on. That is to say, enterprises have a clear economic incentive to promise
long-term support and not deliver. One could argue a company's reputation
would suffer from this kind of behaviour. Maybe sometime it does, but most
often people forget. Political promises are a great example of this.
Enterprises go bankrupt all the time. Even if company X promises 15 years of
software support for their devices, if they cease to exist, your device will
stop getting updates. The internet is full of stories of IoT devices getting
bricked when the parent company goes bankrupt and their servers disappear.
This is related to point number 1: to some degree, you have a disincentive
to pay for long-term support in advance, as the future is uncertain and
there are chances you won't get the support you paid for.
Selling your devices at a higher price to cover maintenance costs does not
necessarily mean you will make more money overall raising more money to
fund maintenance costs being the goal here. To a certain point, smartphone
models are substitute goods and prices higher than market prices will
tend to drive consumers to buy cheaper ones. There is thus a disincentive to
include the price of software maintenance in the cost of the device.
People tend to be bad at rationalising the total cost of ownership over a
long period of time. Economists call this phenomenon
hyperbolic discounting. In our case, it means people are far more likely
to buy a 500$ phone each 3 years than a 1000$ phone each 10 years. Again,
this means OEMs have a clear disincentive to include the price of long-term
software maintenance in their devices.
Clearly, life is more complex than how I portrayed it: enterprises are not
perfect rational agents, altruism exists, not all enterprises aim solely for
profit maximisation, etc. Still, in a capitalist economy, enterprises wanting
to charge for software maintenance upfront have to overcome these hurdles one
way or another if they want to avoid failing.
2 - The subscription model
Another way companies can try to internalise support costs is to rely on a
subscription-based revenue model. This has multiple advantages over the previous
It does not affect the initial purchase price of the device, making it easier
to sell them at a competitive price.
It provides a stable source of income, something that is very valuable to
enterprises, as it reduces overall risks. This in return creates an incentive
to continue providing software support as long as people are paying.
If this model is so interesting from an economic incentives point of view, why
isn't any smartphone manufacturer offering that kind of program? The answer is,
they are, but not explicitly
Apple and Google can fund part of their smartphone software support via the 30%
cut they take out of their respective app stores. A report from Sensor
shows that in 2019, Apple made an estimated US$ 16 billion
from the App Store, while Google raked in US$ 9 billion from the Google Play
Store. Although the Fortune 500 ranking
tells us this respectively
is "only" 5.6% and 6.5% of their gross annual revenue for 2019, the profit
margins in this category are certainly higher than any of their other products.
This means Google and Apple have an important incentive to keep your device
updated for some time: if your device works well and is updated, you are more
likely to keep buying apps from their store. When software support for a device
stops, there is a risk paying customers will buy a competitor device and leave
This also explains why OEMs who don't own app stores tend not to provide
software support for very long periods of time. Most of them only make money
when you buy a new phone. Providing long-term software support thus becomes a
disincentive, as it directly reduces their sale revenues.
Same goes for Kindles and Kobos: the longer your device works, the more money
they make with their electronic book stores. In my opinion, it's likely Amazon
and Rakuten Kobo produce quarterly cost-benefit reports to decide when to drop
support for older devices, based on ongoing support costs and the recurring
revenues these devices bring in.
Rakuten Kobo is also in a more precarious situation than Amazon is: considering
Amazon's very important market share, if your device stops getting new updates,
there is a greater chance people will replace their old Kobo with a Kindle.
Again, they have an important economic incentive to keep devices running as long
as they are profitable.
Can Free Software fix this?
Yes and no. Free Software certainly isn't a magic wand one can wave to make
everything better, but does provide major advantages in terms of security, user
freedom and sometimes costs. The last piece of the puzzle explaining why Rakuten
Kobo's software support is better than Google's is technological choices.
Smartphones are incredibly complex devices and have become the main computing
platform of many. Similar to the web, there is a race for features and
complexity that tends to create bloat and make older devices slow and painful
to use. On the other hand, e-readers are simpler devices built for a single
task: display electronic books.
Control over the platform is also a key aspect of the cost structure of
providing software updates. Whereas Apple controls both the software and
hardware side of iPhones, Android is a sad mess of drivers and SoCs, all
providing different levels of support over time
If you take a look at the platforms the Kindle and Kobo are built on, you'll
quickly see they both use Freescale I.MX SoCs
. These processors
are well known for their excellent upstream support in the Linux kernel and
their relative longevity, chips being produced for either 10 or 15 years. This
in turn makes updates much easier and less expensive to provide.
So clearly, open architectures, free drivers and open hardware helps
tremendously, but aren't enough on their own. One of the lessons we must learn
from the (amazing) LineageOS project is how lack of funding hurts everyone.
If there is no one to do the volunteer work required to maintain a version of
LOS for your device, it won't be supported. Worse, when purchasing a new
device, users cannot know in advance how many years of LOS support they will
get. This makes buying new devices a frustrating hit-and-miss experience. If
you are lucky
, you will get many years of support. Otherwise, you risk
your device becoming an expensive insecure paperweight.
So how do we fix this? Anyone with a brain understands throwing away perfectly
good devices each 2 years is not sustainable. Government regulations enforcing
a minimum support life would be a step in the right direction, but at the end
of the day, Capitalism is to blame. Like the aforementioned carbon tax, band-aid
solutions can make things somewhat better, but won't fix our current economic
system's underlying problems.
For now though, I'll leave fixing the problem of Capitalism to someone else.