Google can’t fix the Android update problem

By | September 9, 2019

Android Lollipop statue (Lous Gray)

The Android Lollipop statue. Lollipop was the fifth major version of Android. It was released in 2014 and still powers nearly 15 percent of Android phones worldwide.

Android 10 is official and as of this writing it’s only available on a very small number of phones: Pixels and a few others. I’ll have a review up later today, but here’s a quick preview: it’s good, does a better job of protecting your privacy, but none of that matters if you can’t get a phone that runs it.

It’s difficult to maintain a sense of outrage over Android’s atrocious track record of providing upgrades to users year after year. We’re at the tenth version, after all, and the story on upgrades is the same today as it was a decade ago: first-party Google devices get updated quickly, everything else takes months or doesn’t get updated at all.

It’s not entirely fair to say nothing’s changed, though. Google has strong-armed manufacturers and carriers into letting it push critical security patches out more quickly. And starting with Android 10, a new initiative called “Project Mainline” will mean some of the plumbing inside Android can be updated directly via the Play Store.

That’s all important, but it’s not what people want. They want the big updates. Yet the Android ecosystem seems designed to keep major OS updates from getting prepped and delivered to users. That’s because it is. And since this situation hasn’t changed in a decade, there’s an incontrovertible conclusion to draw:

Google can’t fix it. No one can.

THE STATE OF ANDROID UPDATES IS STILL DIRE

Take the recent report from Counterpoint Research, which points out that Nokia is far and away the best manufacturer when it comes to issuing major OS updates (after Google and Essential, both of which have far fewer devices to support). It includes this revealing chart, which plots out the percentage of a company’s “portfolio” adoption of Android 9 Pie in the year since it’s been released.

Source: Counterpoint Research White Paper: “Software and Security Updates: The Missing Link for Smartphones” 
Counterpoint Research

The thing that jumps out at you in this chart is how far ahead Nokia is! But this is actually a chart about failure. Here, let me highlight the most important quadrants:

Six months after release, only one manufacturer managed to get half of its portfolio updated, and only two managed over a quarter. A full year after release, only three managed to break the 50 percent mark! And the two most important and largest manufacturers — Samsung and Huawei — ended up at around 30 and 40 percent, respectively.

The lion’s share of phones sold during that period were running the latest version, but very few existing phones were upgraded to 9. There’s a more traditional metric for measuring the install base of Android we can look at, too, and the numbers are equally bleak. That would be Android’s own distribution chart:

Android Distribution, May 2019
Android Distribution, May 2019
 Android

As of May, Android 9 Pie had just barely managed to crack 10 percent. That’s much better than in years past, but still awful.

Perhaps you’re tempted to say that none of this matters. Google has managed to get security updates through more often, after all. Plus, many features that appear in new versions of Android are often already included in skins like Samsung’s One UI.

I would be sympathetic to that argument, but after this article was published a reader made a super important point to me on Twitter: people are keeping their phones longer now because the prices have crept up.

Not getting the version of Android that comes out just a year after you bought your phone might seem fine. But what about two and three years down the road? As Daniel says, “Updates matter!”

GOOGLE CAN’T FIX IT

This is all a result of how the Android ecosystem works.

There’s an open-source group, Android, that nominally is separate from Google and has all the major players participating in it. They’re all free to take the core of Android and do with it what they will (within reason). Some of them apply minor customizations that are easy to move from version to version, some do stuff that’s much harder. Sometimes (often), there is diminishing value for a manufacturer to go through all that effort, especially on older phones. And on top of all that, carriers usually want to verify all those updates won’t mess with their networks, slowing the process down further.

That’s the simple version of why Android updates take forever. The slightly more complicated version is that when I wrote that Android is “nominally” separate from Google, what I really meant was “Google controls Android.” It applies vastly more resources to developing it and chooses what features will be included in every version. It also controls — or at the very least can apply serious pressure on — the entire Android ecosystem because it operates the Play Store and makes the most popular Android apps (Chrome, Gmail, and the like).

In other words, Google has two levers it can pull to try to get Android updates pushed out into this fragmented ecosystem more quickly. There’s a technical lever and a policy lever.

Let’s start with the technical lever, which Google has been pulling very hard on. I’ve already mentioned Project Mainline and monthly security patches, but the more important piece is Project Treble. Treble kicked off in 2017 as a multiyear effort to change how Android is built — to make it more modular, basically, so that it would be easier for manufacturers to build stuff on top of it.

From a technical standpoint, Treble counts as pressure. Google is dictating how manufacturers use Android on their own phones, potentially limiting what customizations they’re able to make in the name of getting updates out more quickly.

It’s been two years, though, and you’d like to think we’d be seeing more dramatic effects from Treble. And it is true that more companies are doing a better job of creating those updates. I would also note that more of them are participating in Android betas. But Android moves slowly — and Treble isn’t a magic fix. It’s possible that Google could just change Android so that it has sole control of pushing out updates, but that seems really unlikely.

What I mean by the “policy” lever is the mix of prodding, cajoling, encouragement, shame, and begging that constitutes Google’s attempts to keep the Android ecosystem in line. It has helped, but as with the technical lever there’s only so much Google can do here.

I could imagine a world where Google required phones that have the Google Play Store and Google Apps to update their phones in a timely manner. Google has used that cudgel before for various other ends, and that didn’t go well. It’s gotten the company into hot water with the European Union and forced it to create a browser ballot and unbundle apps.

THIS IS JUST HOW IT IS, UNTIL IT ISN’T

The “nuclear” option for Google is to just jam either of those levers all the way to the max. I don’t see that happening. It’s not (just) that Google is too timid, it’s that doing so could actually cause more fragmentation. The stricter and more strident Google becomes with Android and its Play Store policies, the more likely certain companies are to simply say “forget this” and fork Android, like what Amazon does with its Fire tablets. That would be a disaster for Google.

It didn’t have to be this way. Microsoft, for example, created an ecosystem of multiple manufacturers, yet nevertheless had a firmer hand when it came to updates for Windows Phone. Then again, it’s possible that was a tiny part of why it failed — manufacturers were much more incentivized to make Android phones because they could do more to differentiate (or monetize) their own phones.

Even Google itself has managed to fix this issue, albeit in situations with much lower stakes. Wear OS, Chrome OS, and the platform that runs Google’s smart speakers all get updates directly from Google. Parts of Android, such as Android Auto, can’t be altered by manufacturers and get updated through the Play Store. Android itself, though, was set up wrong from the start.

Some Googlers are probably not super angry about all this, as it gives Pixel phones a strong advantage over every other phone. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Google as a whole is happy about how Android updates work. I just don’t think that the company believes it can push either of those levers much further.

Then again, Google has very tentatively gone around some carriers to just implement RCS messaging on its own. Maybe there are creative ways to mix policy and code to fix this — but I can’t think of any, and I doubt all of the geniuses at Google can either. If they could, I think they would have by now, and we’d all be updating our phones to Android 10 today.

Oh well, there’s always Fuchsia to look forward to, maybe it will get updates.

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