Technology

Why is Android 12 so buggy? It’s complicated

Android 12 is one of the platform’s most ambitious updates in recent history, bringing a major design overhaul to every corner of the operating system. It has also been one of the rockiest Android OS launches in the past few years. Both Samsung and OnePlus paused the rollout of their stable Android 12-based updates amid reports of serious bugs. Google itself has addressed a laundry list of bug reports from Pixel 6 owners, just as it’s trying to convince them it’s finally figured out how to build a truly premium phone. What in the heck is going on?

The short answer is that there are some unique complicating factors at play this year but also that Android is inherently a little bit messy — that just comes with the territory when you’re designing a delightful public park compared to Apple’s walled garden. Despite a refreshed look and some appealing new high-end handsets, Android is still Android — the good and the bad.

Android 12’s release started predictably enough with a formal announcement at Google I/O in May 2021. After that, the timeline looks a little different from previous years. A full stable release came a month later than usual, on October 4th, 2021. The Pixel 6 and 6 Pro launched later that month with Android 12 pre-loaded. A handful of bugs were to be expected, but Google’s December Pixel update included dozens of fixes despite Google having that extra month.

Even worse, the December patch itself proved problematic as some Pixel 6 owners complained about network connection problems worsened by the update. Google halted the update and later removed it from its archive to prevent manual downloads. When asked, the company didn’t offer an explanation for the problematic update but pointed to a statement that a fix is coming in late January that will include all of the bug fixes planned for the December patch.

Pixel 6 owners are still waiting for the bug fixes initially slated for the December update.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales

Google’s not alone in having trouble with its new OS. Samsung users in South Korea reported serious problems with their Galaxy Fold 3 and Flip 3 devices after installing the One UI 4.0 (Android 12) stable release, including flickering displays and bricked phones. Samsung acknowledged the problem and responded initially by releasing a fourth beta version of the software to fix bugs introduced by the stable release.

OnePlus’ stable release wasn’t so stable, either: its Android 12 skin was so buggy that the company paused its release, like Google, after it was widely criticized. In a brief statement, OnePlus explained that the fact this release marked the company’s attempt to integrate its OxygenOS and ColorOS codebases into the same build “led to the software experience not being smooth” and that its software team “collected the Community’s feedback and released a new build of OxygenOS 12 within a week to deliver a better user experience.”

In each case, these “stable” releases were anything but, and none of these companies offered much detail about what went wrong. To try and figure out what the heck is going on, we talked to Mishaal Rahman, former editor-in-chief of XDA Developers, who’s well known for digging into Android codebases and discovering Google’s secrets. Speaking to the Pixel 6 bugs in particular, Rahman guesses that it has a lot to do with the unusually large size of the update. “Many people have called it, myself included, the biggest OS update to Android since Android 5.0 Lollipop, and that was many years ago. There are just so many massive changes to the interface and to the feature set.”

He also suggests that Google’s commitment to issue a new Android update every year can make things worse when it’s trying to do so much, and the self-imposed one-year development cycle doesn’t leave much wiggle room in the timeline. “They started immediately after Android 11 was released to the public — and they have a hard cutoff date… After that, they just focus on fixing bugs.” Delay any longer, and they’d risk bumping into next year’s development cycle.

It’s also possible that the attempt to bring timely Android updates to non-Google devices wound up backfiring. Android phone owners have been asking for faster updates for a long time — outside of Google’s Pixel phones and pricey flagships, many devices face long waits for OS updates. Sure enough, the updates have come faster this year. Case in point: Samsung users are accustomed to waiting about three months after an Android stable release to get their finished One UI update with the new version of the OS, but this year, One UI 4.0 arrived just one and a half months after Android 12. But the way things have gone this year, many users would likely have opted for a slower, stable update rather than a fast one riddled with bugs.

OnePlus, by its own admission, faced unique complications as it attempted to merge Oppo’s ColorOS and OxygenOS at the same time it incorporated Android 12’s changes. That’s a recipe for bugs, Rahman explains. “Devices that are upgrading from Android 11 with OxygenOS 11 to OxygenOS 12 are having a lot of settings and features being migrated.”

To illustrate the problem, he 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 would sometimes find the Night Light setting constantly enabled on their new phone. This happened because of a mismatch between Realme and Google’s open-source implementations of Night Light. OxygenOS 12, he suspects, suffered from similar issues. “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’ initial OxygenOS 12 release earned a “stable” designation, it makes a little more sense when you account for the huge challenge of merging two codebases.

While all of these factors likely contributed to an unusually troubled release, the underlying problem 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, all of which result in delays. Initiatives like Project Treble seem to have helped speed up some parts of the process, but unless Google takes some drastic actions, nobody can completely fix the problem.

While OEMs and Google push to get updates out faster, they’ve also made a push to produce more attention-grabbing, premium devices. OnePlus appears to be separating its “flagships, but cheaper” ethos into two different realms: “flagships” like the 9 Pro and separate “cheaper” phones a la the Nord series. Samsung is making a serious attempt to bring foldables into the mainstream. Google has positioned the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro as true flagships, with custom processors and a design language that’s more polished and less quirky than previous generations. This buggy OS rollout risks taking some of the shine off of the polished image these device makers are hoping to cultivate — in fact, the damage may already be done.

It’s a shame because they’ve succeeded 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’s the genuine article. And this time around, Samsung seems to have succeeded at making a foldable phone that has captured the attention of more than just tech geeks. But behind the glossy hardware, the software experience can still be uneven at times. That’s easier to forgive on a midrange or budget phone, but it’s tough to stomach from a premium device.

It’s unlikely, though, that this unusually troubled release will sway significant numbers of people to bail on Android; as painful as some of these bugs have been, they’re probably not enough to push users over the hurdles of jumping ship to Apple. Rahman thinks that in most cases, the ecosystem lock-in is too strong.

“You’d lose out on so many apps and services that you pay for. If you have other devices that interact with your smartphone, you’d lose access to that, or that access would be diminished in some way. I don’t see it as a significant factor convincing people to turn away from a particular device.” Those barriers exist on Apple’s side as well, of course. Recently surfaced emails from Apple executives 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 boundaries of that walled garden. And there’s the flipside of Android’s fragmented existence: there’s no single entity dictating the hardware and software. In Apple’s ecosystem, you get what it deems to be the right features at the right time, and that’s that. Foldables? Maybe in a few years. A rainbow of customizable system colors? Forget it. Life is a little more interesting — if, at times, unpredictable and uneven — outside of the garden walls.

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