Google Will Partially Address Update Fragmentation in Android O

Posted on May 13, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Android with 33 Comments

Google Will Partially Address Update Fragmentation in Android O

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.

 

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Comments (33)

33 responses to “Google Will Partially Address Update Fragmentation in Android O”

  1. MikeCerm

    Android fragmentation is still a problem, even if most consumers don't notice it, because of how it affects development. When iOS is updated with a new feature, like iCloud backup or something, all developers jump to implement that feature because it's something that will improve the lives of users, 90% of whom will have updated within a month of OS release. When a new version of Android is released, developers do/can not target that new version because it will takes about 2 years before a plurality of users are using a equal to or greater than that version. That's the real scourge of fragmentation. There's still a bunch of people using Android 4.1! Imagine if every Windows app had to maintain compatibility with Windows 2000, because years later there's still like 20% of users who haven't upgraded -- then where would we be

    The other thing that must be said is that this latest initiative by Google will do nothing to solve the fragmentation problem. It makes it makes it so handset makers don't have to wait for driver updates from the people who make the chipsets before they start developing updates.... But that was never the actual problem. The problem is that OEMs have no incentive to provide any updates to products already in the market, and they still don't.


    • GeekWithKids

      In reply to MikeCerm:

      While this is still an issue, Google has been limiting the impact of this on developers by deploying new features through Play Store Services instead of the OS, while this doesn't work for every new feature it does allow them to add things to Older Versions of Android without the OEM or Carrier getting in the way.



    • Darmok N Jalad

      In reply to MikeCerm:

      Indeed. I wonder if Google approaches Android design with this in mind. They seem keen on making most of their new features at the app level so they actually will be available to the larger market and therefore used. Apple puts more updates in at the OS level, since they control the updates. They see near immediate adoption of a new feature from users and developers alike.

      Google may never fix this problem because they can only control what goes on their own phones. OEMs add and control their own content, apps and launchers, and they seem reluctant to continue developing for phones that are no longer being sold. It's possible they can't even afford to.

    • Jeff Jones

      In reply to MikeCerm: The problem is that OEMs have no incentive to provide any updates to products already in the market, and they still don't.

      Regarding your last sentence. This might be part of the reason Google decided to produce a premium priced phone. To prove to manufacturers that fast and long term updates can be a selling point and is worth the time, but without the "low price" excuse getting in the way. Now if the trick will just work and pull customers away from these update averse manufacturers.

    • MikeGalos

      In reply to MikeCerm:

      Exactly. If apps aren't hurt by fragmentation it means their developers are coding to the lowest common denominator of APIs and features.

  2. evancox10

    Sorry but I call BS that the problem lies in the carriers. My last three or so Android phones have all been unlocked varieties, which means the carriers are completely out of the update loop, yet the update situation is still the same.


    Edit:

    The blames lies in a few places, IMO:

    1) The silicon vendors (e.g. Qualcomm, Samsung, nVidia). If they don't provide the updated Board Support Packages, there's nothing the OEMs can feasibly do to get the new versions running.

    2) the architecture of Linux on ARM itself. Unlike IBM-compatible x86 PCs, which have standardized OS/firmware interfaces such as BIOS for booting (now UEFI) and ACPI for power management, each ARM SoC has its own custom interfaces.


    Google is trying to fix issue #2 here, which would also indirectly helps with issue #1. The silicon vendors would just need to provide Project Treble-compatible firmware once, and then (hopefully) any Android Os version can run on top of that without changing it.

  3. Cain69

    the OEM excuses - though weak - are understandable. But, the carriers really piss me off. They do it for not other reason but, to f' their own customers.

  4. webdev511

    Carrier stupidity is one of the reasons that when my wife & I switched from Lumias we went to Nexus on Fi. No more BS about extended testing of updates to "insure network compatibility" (yes I'm talking about verizon) Carriers still don't quite get that their job is to supply a pipe. They're still stuck on the business model that had them raking in money with handset upgrades to the next greatest thing. Smartphones are mature now and if carriers didn't put themselves in the way, a smartphone could easily last a user five years, that is provided they don't damage it physically.

  5. jrickel96

    The fragmentation is a huge issue when it comes to security and even for the apps where you have to code for SO MANY different iterations. I dealt with that when testing an AR app for a NFL team this past fall. The app had issues on various handsets, some of them new - and across all ranges. Even on phones running the apparent same version of Android, problems were encountered in a lot of areas. iOS devices were easy - if it works on one, it'll work on them all on iOS 9 and above. It's difficult to guarantee that each Android device will behave correctly even when it's the same manufacturer, same version, and same hardware. The Windows control software worked without issue on any Windows computer. iOS software worked on any iOS device bought within the last four years. Android versions could fail on phones that were six months old.


    Android has a lot of problems beyond just fragmentation and most of it is rooted in what Android is. Google has no way to really maintain control of it in any real way. Security will continue to be a nightmare. The carriers don't help, but I'll believe that Google will be able to push updates when I see it. Microsoft has a better chance of creating a submarket of Ultra Mobile PCs separated from carrier contracts that will receive Windows updates like our PCs do.


    I suspect the OEMs will try to find a way to block updates anyways. They don't want users to get upgraded without new hardware. The Android ecosystem is broken and is not going to be fixed, so it'll just plod on until Android dies officially - which is probably within the next 5-7 years. Sounds crazy, but I suspect we're at peak smartphone and something else is coming. What it is, no idea. But I doubt Android will power it and I think Google will find themselves diminished.


    Most people do only care about the apps. They don't care about Android and that's a huge problem for Android. Same thing for Google. People actually have passionate opinions about Microsoft and Apple. Most people, especially the younger ones, are ambivalent about Google. It's just there, but they have no love for it.


    You should've seen the wows the early 20 somethings had when I showed some of my friends in that age range Story Remix. That blew them away. They've seen the Hololens demos too. Microsoft has some things that could win hearts and minds if they can deliver on them, but Google doesn't really. All Google is is an ad company. They've never found any way to diversify themselves and they are even struggling in Cloud.


    I'll stick with the iPhone in the smartphone space as it is. The iPhone 5 is finally about to lose support nearly five years after launch. You may pay for an iPhone, but if you take care of it, you can have it for 3-4 or more years WITH software support. All those iPhones just got a new file system.


    It's like the old issue of cheap PCs. Do you buy the $300 desktop or the much better $800 model? How many cheap models will you buy while the more expensive one continues to work. You can pay $300 for a decent midrange Android phone every year and a half, because that's how long they last at best (I had two for friends that only lasted six months), but the iPhone will last four years if you want it to.

    • offTheRecord

      In reply to jrickel96:

      Maybe we're lucky or just not as hard on our devices as others, or maybe the Nexus devices are exceptions to the norm, but our Nexus 4 phones still work perfectly fine; same with our Nexus 7s. After 4-5 years, even battery life is still acceptable.

  6. Thomas Parkison

    "Given the 1-2 year lifecycle of a typical smartphone"

    You know that some people pass their phones down through the family as they upgrade which leaves the oldest device without proper software patching and of course security exploits. Most devices made today have more than enough hardware in them to be able to support not only today's version of Android but future versions for years to come. It's just that the OEMs don't want to do that, they instead want to have you buy a new device because that practically prints the green stuff for them by the semi-track full.

  7. Thomas Parkison

    “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,”

    Oh but if you didn't go ahead and screw with Android by layering it with your bloatware (TouchWiz, SenseUI, etc.) and gave us nothing but pure Android it wouldn't be so expensive to update. See? SIMPLE!

  8. Jorge Garcia

    Dear Google, worry about fragmentation later, make a semi-heavy duty Desktop version of Android now. Sentio, Remix, Phoenix, and especially Samsung, among others are seizing upon your abandonment of the World's (potentially) most versatile OS ever. That neglect is going to lead to another, more damaging form of fragmentation (from the consumer's perspective, anyway).

  9. bbold

    I have an iPhone 6S Plus but just use it at home like an iPad through my WIFI. lol. For work, I use my Alcatel Idol 4S. It works great with all I do for work and it just can't be beat. Android phones just suck, imho. Maybe it's my age? I hate how Google apps work, I love the extra added and pro features of Windows apps and services.

  10. davidblouin

    "I still feel that Android fragmentation is a “lie,” by which I mean it is a non-issue for most people"


    Until you imagine what a world where all the android device where running the latest version would look like.


    Until you imagine the possibility for developper if they suddendly don't need to code for the lowest Android version possible.

  11. Jeff Jones

    Too bad the majority can't get away from buying carrier branded phones. My last three phones have been unlocked which thankfully allows me to move between carriers easily. Even if I never move to another carrier, I can't see ever buying a carrier branded phone again. It's just not worth the hassle you get from them.

    (Ironically I'm sure "less hassle" is the reason people think they should stick with a carrier branded phone, like a case of Stockholm syndrome or something)

  12. Samuel Libardi Godoy

    For those saying the fragmentation is a lie and that apps are not affected by it, take some time and make an app. You'll see how stupid it is to be forced to use compatibility libraries to support more than half of the userbase, having to fragment your app to version-based files to support seemingly simple features, having the xml designer not work properly for compatibility elements, plus having a lot ton of work to debug and fix problems in specific versions.


    Does the consumer feel this? Not directly, but devs could be working on fantastic features when they're spending most of their time simply making their app work for everyone.

    • PeteB

      In reply to Samuel Libardi Godoy:

      It's not that "fragmentation is a lie", but it does tend to get overblown by iPhone nerds and angry Wmobile clingers trying to create negative spin about Android. Reality, it's not something most android users care or are even aware about - if you walked up to a random person with an android phone at work or a coffeeshop and asked what they thought about "android fragmentation" they'd be utterly clueless what you were babbling about.

      The fact it's challenging for developers to have to debug for multiple versions is tough, but users ultimately don't care how the sausage is made - 'gitter done.

  13. Waethorn

    I want to point out something I mentioned before: absolutely no Canadian carriers block updates. They've all stated that they release updates as soon as they get them from the phone manufacturers. The device makers make the updates for their network. The carriers themselves don't do any testing as the device makers know exactly how to code the updates for their network. In one case, when I questioned one of the "big 3" (Telus/Rogers/Bell), they stated that the updates for their phone applies to all other companies as well because they all share the same GSM network since they agreed to, when the Vancouver Olympics came about. Freedom Mobile, which runs on an AWS spectrum, also stated that they don't block updates.


    When I questioned manufacturers about updates for Android, they questioned my motives, and thought that I worked for a public media outlet. I talked to 2 major manufacturers, and they were tripping over their public press releases, so to speak. Giving the same old line of "testing needs to be done, yadda yadda." None of the manufacturers would give a schedule. One even lies about having updates ready, even though they post publicly that the updates are available for several phones on specific networks.

  14. MikeGalos

    The latest Netmarketshare report shows 13 different versions of Android in use (plus about 5% that show as Android without a version)


    The most popular version only has 32% of the Android active share

    Three versions have over 19% each

    Two more are between 5% and 10%


    If we combine to just major releases we still get

    2.x = 0.43%

    3.x = 0.03%

    4.x = 27.61%

    5.x = 27.60%

    6.x = 31.64%

    7.x = 0.65%

    unknown version = 5.39%


    Sure, the devices on 2.x and 3.x are trivial and could be ignored but if you were a developer and had over a quarter of your potential market on version 4.x would you be taking advantage of features newer than that knowing they couldn't use them?

  15. dcdevito

    It's not entirely Google's fault, Qualcomm is partially to blame also. With outdated Linux kernel upstream updates it's impossible for Google to keep devices supported for very long. They have the same issue with Chromebooks. Their new Fuschia OS will take care of this. But when is the key question

  16. ponsaelius

    I dont disagree but I observe that the Nokia handset offer is that it will distribute monthly security updates from Google. Could be that the new Nokia becomes the handset maker of choice for the Android savvy who dont want to spend the money on a Pixel.

  17. CmdrZod4R

    > Android fragmentation is a lie

    Invented by Apple fanatics who couldn't stand the rise of Android - it took the exclusivity away from their platform, and they badly needed differentiation. Thus came fragmentation, OS updates (never mind the big omission - most App updates on Android are independent of OS updates), scrolling etc as the most damning issues that Android needed to die for :) - nobody actually cared and it's getting better in every regard - in short time too as far as OS roadmaps go.

  18. mountjl

    To be clear, I'm not Android bashing here. As an ex-Windows Phone user running 7.1.1 on a OnePlus 3, I'm generally very happy with Android. I am however curious as to why Google can't open up the beta program in a manner similar to Microsoft with the Windows Insider program? That bypassed carriers etc. Is it due to the sheer range of device types and the modifications OEMs make to Google Play Android? Just curious.

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