Google releases a new version of Android, and while Nexus and Pixel devices get updated, other Android OEMs mostly shrug their shoulders and go about their business. If users are lucky, they might get an OS update six months down the line, at which point Google has already moved on to an even newer version of Android.
Android’s update problems. “Project Treble” is a plan to modularize the Android OS, separating the OS framework code from “vendor specific” hardware code. In theory, this change would allow for a new Android update to be flashed on a device without any involvement from the silicon vendor. Google calls it “the biggest change to the low-level system architecture of Android to date,” and it’s already live on the Google Pixel’s Android O Developer Preview.
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Google lists three steps to creating an Android update:
Silicon manufacturers (Qualcomm, Samsung Exynos, etc) “modify the new release for their specific hardware” and do things like make sure drivers and power management will still work.
OEMs (Samsung, LG, HTC) step in and “modify the new release again as needed for their devices.” This means making sure all the hardware works, rebranding Android with a custom skin, adding OEM apps, and modifying core parts of the Android OS to add special features like (before 7.0) multi-window support.
Carriers add more apps, more branding, and “test and certify the new release.”
Google has OEMs pass a “Compatibility Test Suite” (CTS) that ensures that third-party Android apps can run on their OS implementation, silicon vendors will now have a “Vendor Test Suite” (VTS) that ensures “forward compatibility of the vendor implementation.” Google says that VTS-compliant vendors can “choose to deliver a new Android release to consumers by just updating the Android OS framework without any additional work required from the silicon manufacturers.” For now, there aren’t many details, but Google says it will release the full documentation for Treble when the final version of Android O launches later this year.
Google’s blog post notes, “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.” Updating Android will still be costly because OEMs and carriers will still be in the loop, and, because updating a device has a negative effect on companies’ bottom lines, they’re not motivated to actually do it.
With Project Treble enabled on the Pixel phones, Google now has no one to blame other than itself for the Pixels getting end-of-life’d. If consumers pressure Google to provide more than two years of major OS updates, the company can now totally do it.
“Is this device Project Treble enabled?” is something we’re going to have to ask at every single launch event from now on. OEMs can now be the first one to blame when an update doesn’t arrive, and it should stop some of the finger-pointing that happens when consumers ask where their update is. Android O is clearly required, but it’s very interesting that the Pixel phones were updated to include Project Treble. This means it’s possible for devices like the Galaxy S8 to be updated with Treble as well.