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Project Treble is another attempt at faster Android updates

Google has historically had a problem with getting mobile device manufacturers to push out Android updates, which has left hundreds of millions in the Android ecosystem at risk. Google hopes that will change with the introduction of Project Treble in Android 8.0 Oreo, but it’s unclear if this latest attempt to speed up Android updates will be successful.

Project Treble is an ambitious and impressive piece of engineering that will essentially make the Android system separate from any manufacturer (OEM) modifications. Theoretically, this will allow Android OS updates to be pushed out faster because they won’t be delayed by any custom software being added. In a perfect world, this could even make OEMs happier because they will also be able to push updates to custom software without going down the path of putting those custom apps in the Play Store.

Wrangling the Android ecosystem is by no means an easy feat. According to Google’s latest statistics from May 2017, there were more than 2 billion active Android devices worldwide. Attempting to get consistent, quick updates to all of those devices with dozens of OEMs needing modifications for hundreds of hardware variations, as well as verification from carriers around the world, is arguably one of the most difficult system update problems in history.

Project Treble isn’t Google’s first attempt at fixing Android updates by trying to implement policies around updates, nudging OEMs towards lighter customization and pushing updates through apps in the Play Store, but history has proven these changes don’t make much difference. Project Treble is a major change that has the potential to make a significant impact on system updates, but there will still be issues.

First in 2011, Google put in place an informal policy asking OEMs to fully support devices for 18 months after being put on the market, including updating to the latest Android OS version released within that timeframe. Unfortunately, there was no way to enforce this policy and no timetable mandating when updates needed to be pushed. As a result, Android 7.x Nougat is only on 13.5% of the more than 2 billion active devices worldwide (per the August numbers from Google) and, althoughAndroid 6.0 Marshmallow is found on the plurality of devices, it only reaches 32.3% of the ecosystem.

After that, Google added a rule that a device had to be released with the latest version of Android in order to be certified to receive the Play Store, Google Apps and Play services. This helped make sure new devices didn’t start out behind, but didn’t address the update problem.

Google even tried to sidestep the issue altogether by putting a number of security features into Google Play services, which is updated directly by Google separately from the Android OS and therefore can be pushed to nearly all Android devices without OEM or carrier interaction.

Remaining speedbumps for Android updates

Project Treble has the potential to make an impact to how quickly devices receive Android updates, but it doesn’t necessarily address delays from carrier certification of updates. Unlike iOS updates, which come straight from Apple, Android updates need OEM tinkering due to the variety of hardware and therefore need to also be tested by carriers. Perhaps, carrier testing will be faster since the Android system updates should be relatively similar from device to device, but there’s no way to know that yet.

Additionally, Project Treble will add another layer of complexity to Android updates by creating three separate update packages for OEMs to worry about — the Android OS, the OEM custom software layer and the monthly security patches.

Google has been rumored to be considering a way to publicly shame OEMs who fall behind on the security patch releases, indicating that even those aren’t being pushed out in a timely manner. In the meantime, an unofficial tracker for security updates gives a rough idea of the situation.

OEM software teams are likely used to working on Android OS updates in conjunction with the OEM customizations, so a workflow change will be needed. Once that’s done, there’s no guarantee the Android OS update will get any priority over custom software or even that it will get the resources to get device-specific adaptations quickly.

Ultimately, Project Treble provides OEMs a much easier path to pushing faster updates for Android, but there are still enough speedbumps to cause delays and OEMs still haven’t proven able to even push small security patch releases. Android updates will never be as fast and seamless as iOS, but given the challenges Google faces, Project Treble may be the best solution yet. If OEMs get on board.

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