Google announced this week that it is taking steps to address the Android fragmentation issue by preventing device makers from blocking certain updates. The bad news? It will only apply to devices running Android “O” or newer.
The worse news? Google still doesn’t have an answer for the other half of the Android fragmentation issue: The wireless carriers that continue to block other updates, including security updates.
“One thing we’ve consistently heard from our device-maker partners is that updating existing devices to a new version of Android is incredibly time-consuming and costly,” Google’s Iliyan Malchev explains. “With Android O, we’ve been working very closely with device makers and silicon manufacturers to take steps toward solving this problem, and we’re excited to give you a sneak peek at Project Treble, the biggest change to the low-level system architecture of Android to date.”
Put simply, Google is re-architecting Android to “make it easier, faster and less costly for manufacturers to update devices to a new version of Android.” It will do so by modularizing Android so that the core OS is separated from “the device-specific, lower-level software written in large part by the silicon manufacturers.”
In other words, by adding this additional layer of code outside of the core Android OS, less of the software on any given device will need to be updated. This will allow chipset or handset makers to deliver certain classes of updates directly to their customers.
Sadly, carriers are, and will remain to be, the core problem for updating Android: They are more interested in selling you a new device than in keeping an older device up-to-date.
A couple of related points.
I still feel that Android fragmentation is a “lie,” by which I mean it is a non-issue for most people. That is, you get an Android handset and you use it, and the apps you want always work. There are no major apps that require a new Android OS version that no one has. Given the 1-2 year lifecycle of a typical smartphone, this system actually works fine, and fragmentation has certainly done little to stop the success of Android, which is now in use on about 85 percent of all devices worldwide.
But if you disagree with that statement or are a more savvy consumer, you can, of course, make device choices that will mitigate the impact of fragmentation: Just buy an unlocked device, preferably a “clean” Android device like those in the Pixel and Nexus lines, to ensure that you’re always on the latest OS version, and get updates each month, right on schedule.
Or just buy an iPhone. Apple’s devices are routinely updated and are supported for many years, unlike even Google’s Pixel.