Many Fire TV owners trying to tune into yesterday’s Premier League match through the NBC Sports app, which holds exclusive rights to the games, were greeted with the unfortunate message that their device had suddenly been deemed too old to watch the stream. The message explains that Premier League matches could now only be viewed on Fire TV models running Fire OS 6 or higher due to security updates to the NBC Sports app. This decision excludes the millions of Fire TV devices running Fire OS 5 which make up the majority of active devices, are still sold brand new by Amazon, and are still receiving prompt security updates by Amazon.
By excluding Fire TV devices running Fire OS 5, NBC Sports has cut off the 1st and 2nd generation Fire TV, the 1st and 2nd generation Fire TV Stick, Fire TV Edition televisions made by Element and Westinghouse, and the Fire TV Stick Basic Edition, which is still sold new by Amazon. It’s also worth noting that the excluded 2nd generation Fire TV Stick was Amazon’s best-selling Fire TV model less than 6 months ago, before it was recently replaced by the 3rd generation Fire TV Stick after 4 years in production. Therefore, what NBC deems as “older Fire TV models” are devices that are still being sold new by their manufacturer, were the most purchased models as recently as 6 months ago, and, by my estimates, account for over half of all Fire TV devices currently being used by customers.
NBC did reveal earlier this year that NBC Sports will be shutting down by the end of 2021. This could just be a case of them not caring anymore about a dying part of their business but it raises concern for the continued support of NBCUniversal’s dozens of other Fire TV apps on “older” models. For now, it seems as though only Premier League games are being affected and that other programming can still be streamed on Fire TV devices running Fire OS 5. The NBC Sports app, as a whole, is still compatible with Fire OS 5 devices, however, that still leaves a lot of paying Premier League fans with recently purchased Fire TV devices no way to stream games in the middle of the ongoing season.
Amazon’s approach for updating the software on Fire TV devices, unfortunately, sets things up for situations like this. For most Android device manufacturers, continued software support typically means keeping the device updated to the latest version of Android. That, in turn, gives developers a sense of how old an Android device is based on the version of Android that it is running. When an app developer decides to end support for older devices, they typically make the cut-off by picking the oldest version of Android that they choose to support. Not by basing the decision on device models, generations, or release dates.
With Fire TV devices, Amazon hardly ever updates the core version of Android that the device is running. The last time they did this was 2016 when they updated Fire OS 3 devices to Fire OS 5. All devices since then have remained on Fire OS 5 or the Fire OS version that they launched with. In place of updating the core Android version, Amazon instead tries to keep the feature set the same across all versions of Fire OS on all Fire TV devices. This means that all Fire TV devices are still being updated and receiving new features, even the original 1st generation Fire TV which received an update this month, nearly 7 years after it was first released.
On one hand, Amazon should be commended for continuing to provide software updates to devices that were sold so long ago. However, not updating the core OS causes confusion with customers and app developers when brand new devices are released with what seems to be an old version of Fire OS. Some of the Fire TV Edition televisions by Croma that debuted last week, for example, are running Fire OS 6 despite Fire OS 7, the latest version of Amazon’s operating system, being available for nearly a year and a half already. Those brand new Fire OS 6 TV models have all the latest features as Fire TV devices running Fire OS 7, but an app developer and customer can easily confuse them for being outdated models due to having an OS that is a generation behind.
NBC Sports seems to have made the standard practice of cutting off app support based on the core operating system version of the device without fully understanding what that means to the existing Fire TV user base and the Fire TV device landscape. However, they’re not solely to blame when Amazon chooses to disregard conventional Android update practices by keeping modern devices that are still being manufactured on old versions of Android. When it comes to 3rd-party app support, as is the case with the NBC Sports app, maintaining a consistent set of features across all Fire TV models isn’t going to help customers much when the core Android version is so outdated.