Can Google Solve Android Fragmentation for Good?Photo by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images Tech Features Android
Android has come a long way over the years. In its short history, Android smartphones went from a cheap alternative of the iPhone to some of the best phones on the market. Went it comes to things like cameras, displays, performance, and features, phones like the Galaxy S8 or the Google Pixel are every bit as good as the iPhone.
But as far as Android has indeed come, its always had one major problem: fragmentation. Essentially, the problem is that because Android phones are not made exclusively by Google, getting software updates to devices are often delayed. Unlike with iOS where 79 percent of users have updated to iOS 10, many Android phones are still using operating system versions from years ago. That might not sound like a huge problem, but consider the following statistics:
As of now, only 5 percent of devices are using Android Nougat, the latest version of Android, released toward the end of 2016. 31 percent are using the previous version Marshmallow, while a staggering 64 percent are using software from 2014 or before. This fragmentation problem not only holds people back from actually using all the cool features Google is innovating on, but it also means Google’s security and bug patches take that much longer to push through.
Apple CEO Tim Cook famously said, “Android fragmentation turning devices into a toxic hellstew of vulnerabilities.”
So what’s the problem?
It’s a complicated series of process that causes the problem, but it’s best understood in the flowchart below, made by Google itself:
As you can see, Google has a massive hurdle to leap if it wants to overcome the problem of Android fragmentation. With every new update, carriers and manufacturers are having to put tons of time and money into testing the new software to make sure it can be implemented across the board.
Google hasn’t been sitting on its hands though. The company has tried a number of different things to solve the problem—including making first-party lock screens available to just straight up releasing its own flagship devices. Unfortunately, none of these plans have put a serious dent in the problem.
The company’s latest attempt is something called Project Treble. It’s a massive, system-level change in Android O that bypasses a lot of the expensive testing that partners have had to do.
“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,” says Iliyan Malchev, the team lead on Project Treble. “The core concept is to separate the vendor implementation—the device-specific, lower-level software written in large part by the silicon manufacturers—from the Android OS Framework.”
Treble introduces a new vendor interface that takes a lot of the code work out of pushing through updates, including ensuring forward compatibility. As the Android Developers blog states, device makers won’t have to go back to its silicon manufacturers to approve updates every time—it can push them through itself.
If the goal is to put the latest version of Android in the hands of as many users as possible, Project Treble is most definitely going to help. Updates will happen faster—and hopefully we’ll see phone manufacturers be able to push them through to users at a quicker pace.
However, I can guarantee you something right now: Project Treble will not solve Android fragmentation for good.
Android is an open-source operating system. Fragmentation itself is not a problem that Google can or should truly solve. It’s a characteristic of the kind of system Google has built in the first place—and has produced plenty of good things, not just bad. Let’s not forget that the success of Samsung’s Galaxy devices are one of the only reasons Android has gotten to where it is today. These are phones which were only made possible because of how open Android was from the beginning.
The only way Google can really fix fragmentation for good is if it starts tightening the reins on what companies can and cannot do with the OS. Google did that with Android Wear, the company’s wearable platform—and it seemed to lead to a bevy of lookalike smartwatches, none of which stood out or caught on in any meaningful way. The result as been the discontinuing of most of those smartwatch lines.
I don’t want to see that happen to Android smartphones. Even though I want to see the latest update of Android on phones just as much as anyone else, solving the problem completely won’t have been worth it if it means sacrificing the heart of what Android really is.