Google Can't Ignore The Android Update Problem Any Longer (Op Ed)

Android 5.0 "Lollipop" was released about half a year ago, and while its adoption rate was much slower in the beginning, it has now spiked to almost 10 percent of the Android market, according to the latest platform distribution numbers from Google.

Google usually releases a major platform, to which it gives a dessert-themed name, and then iterates on it with bug fixes and a few minor feature additions. In this case, we have "Lollipop," which includes Android 5.0 and the recently released Android 5.1.

There may or may not be an Android 5.2 as well, depending how big of a change Google plans for Android 6.0 and whether it needs to delay it in order to implement those major changes. However, chances are that Google is now trying to keep a major-version-per-year schedule, and it should release a preview of Android 6.0 at the next Google I/O event, while the stable version could arrive late fall this year.

Until then, we have only Android 5.0 and Android 5.1 (Lollipop), which currently represent 9.0 percent and 0.7 percent of the Android market, respectively, for a combined total of 9.7 percent. That's definitely nothing to be proud about, because it could be years by the time the vast majority of users are on the Android 5+ platforms. By then, 10 percent of users could be on Android 8.0.

As we can see in the distribution numbers chart, Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean), which was released just about three years ago, still only has 15.6 percent of the market, and there's no reason to believe new versions will transition more rapidly from Android 5.0 in the future.

Because Android is open source and because so many (essentially) OEM-tweaked "forks" of it exist, a "clean" upgrade path is almost impossible. To have a clean standardized update system would mean all the OEMs would have to agree to abide strictly by Google's guidelines for what they can and cannot modify on the platform.

However, as soon as Google tries to do something like that, the OEMs usually cry foul that Google is making Android more proprietary and restricting what they can do with it. Google may also not want to upset the OEMs too much by forcing a unified update system on them either, because of the fear that those OEMs could take their business elsewhere, as it were.

When we look at the matter practically, though, we see that some have already tried that (Samsung with Tizen), and it hasn't worked very well. The reality is that Android and iOS are so entrenched in the market right now that it's hard to believe a significant third platform could arise on mobile when it comes to apps.

Even Microsoft, after spending billions upon billions trying to make Windows Phone popular, has essentially admitted failure on the app store front, and is now trying to make Android and iOS apps work with Windows instead. This strategy isn't too different from how BlackBerry adopted Android apps on its platform because it also knew it had no chance to build a strong third app store. Trying to build a new app platform from scratch is an insurmountable effort. Google shouldn't be fearing it so much, even if the OEMs threaten to do it.

As for OEMs starting to adopt Windows on their phones because Google would force a unified update system on them, that doesn't make any logical sense. OEMs may have other reasons for the switch, but the unified update system wouldn't be the real reason, because Windows has even stricter platform guidelines and its own unified update system.

For years, Apple has made fun of Android and its fragmented update system, and it will continue for years more. Microsoft has recently started doing the same. The update system on Android is something Google can ignore no longer, and it needs to do whatever it takes to fix it. Otherwise, it risks having users (slowly but surely) switch to more secure platforms that do give them updates in a timely manner. And if users want those platforms, OEMs will have no choice but to switch to them too, leaving Google with less and less Android adoption.

Google also can't and shouldn't leave the responsibility to OEMs and carriers anymore, because so far they've proven themselves to be quite irresponsible from this point of view. At best, we see flagship smartphones being updated for a year and a half, and even that is less than the time most people keep their phones.

Even worse, the highest volume phones (lower-end handsets) usually never get an update. If they do it's only one update, and it comes about a year after Google released that update to other phones, giving malicious attackers plenty of time to take advantage of those users.

This update "system," if you can call it that, ends up leaving the vast majority of Android users with security holes in their phones and without the ability to experience new features until they buy new phones (which is sadly a kind of planned obsolescence as well). This can't be an acceptable state of affairs for Google, and it shouldn't be. Google already has a great six-week update system for Chromebooks, and it's time to have Android catch up to that, as well.

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Lucian Armasu
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.
  • jankeke
    Amen to that !
  • thrus
    So all they have to do is get a change pushed into every contract they have and have that change propagated on to each contract that company has with the carriers.

    In order for this to go through i would become a very happy person. the reason is that it would basicaly require that all the Samsunng/LG/other crapware be an app, and all the sprint/att/verison crapware be an app. this would mean I could uninstall them.

    For added fun I could get a copy of the LG/ATT stuff and it would work on my Samsung/Sprint phone. I say for fun but this would be something LG/ATT would worry about what if I wanted theirs how would they get compensation for it? They can't sell it or their own customers would be pissed about being charged to add back they valuable software.

    I know I sound down on this but I would love to have all the crapware that vendors/carriers force on me be removable and have one solid core OS that could be kept up to date. But the roll out of this would be slow as it has to go through layers of contracts not just one and every step would be fought as no one wants to give up control that they currently have with the reason being "for the good of the consumer" to do this Google would need to prove it would increase sales for vendor and carrier for our old phone to be update-able with the latest software, that is not an easy pitch. for Apple every other generation you are up for a new phone but android has a new phone release monthly from some carrier or another it seems. Samsung alone S1 6/2010 to S6 4/2015 with 9-14 months between major version, 28 variation over that time. that is almost a variation every 2 months on average with just 1 line one maker.
  • belardo
    One reason I love Motorola phones is because of the very clean Android OS... which does have a few tweaks above standard Android.

    Okay, how about this. Google handles the updates, period. The big 4 companies have their SKIN jobs and Google has 1-2 generic skins for small companies to choose.

    The Carriers cause the biggest problems with their crap-apps. Like AT&T Navigation, which is like "Why the F would I want to pay $3 to use a crappy GPS program - that SO few people buy, when I can use Google's?!".

    So handle it this way:
    Google handles the phone's CORE OS update.

    The manufacture that has included a few EXTRA APPS... that is a package or does auto-updates.

    The carrier, does the same thing... and DOESN'T touch the OS. Carrier makes money by charging for its services... really, their apps suck ass... But also, as stated, it kind of makes people want to buy NEW phones... but a big chunk of the market is out-dated... but also on lower-end hardware.

    I see this with my MotoX phone (almost 2 years old). I'll get notifications if I want to install google apps... Motorola apps and at&t apps. They are not connected.

    Why would this be so hard? The pre-installed brand/carrier apps simply try to update themselves... and are REMOVABLE.

    Should it be this hard?
  • Renan Renno
    I believe Android OS fragmentation is not as big as a problem as it was when Gingerbread was still around, I mean JellyBean and Kitkat are very robust versions, with much more features than any iOS out there. And also Apple is just getting started on fragmentation as well with more device sizes and models and with so few people upgrading to iOS 8. Fragmentation is a thing. For any platform. Developers need to deal with it.
  • pyro411
    I agree, Android fragmentation is a massive problem that OEMs, Carriers, and Google need to address soon.

    Ideally I would love to see all phones receiving major/mid updates for 18-36 months after product launch -- not soft launch or announcement but retail shipment level of launch.

    It would also be nice if we got the following levels we could configure in our phones.
    Stable + security updates
    Milestone + security updates
    Cutting edge including security updates

    However I agree with Thrus that it has major challenges that need to be addressed as well.
    Will Google push generic radio images with the updates & leave it up to the carriers to push radio firmwares separately at a later date with proper fine tuning?
    How is bootloader locking/encryption going to be handled, especially between phones purchased outright vs subsidized phones?
    Will images be sent out as Google generic allowing you to use the optional skin from the manufacturer so Google doesn't have to wait for LG/Samsung/Etc to update their skins?
    Bloatware -- Will we who buy the phone outright get ones with 0 bloat installed where those who subsidize it be required to get it until the phone is paid off?
    Phones over x months old that are out of production/sales will they be fully unsupported or will backported security patches become available for x months after official first line support ends?

    Question for when modular phones get released and become popular...
    Will there be an upgrade adviser built in so we know when/if a module purchased won't be supported anymore.
    -- For example chipset manufacturer A decided to stop writing drivers/firmwares for their graphics card(s) and won't update them for any later kernels while refusing to supply source code to Google/Manufacturers? -- This happened with TI and the Galaxy Nexus which got stuck at 4.4.2 on Verizon
  • marthisdil
    "For years, Apple has made fun of Android and its fragmented update system, and it will continue for years more. Microsoft has recently started doing the same"

    Funny how they make fun from second place.
  • ddpruitt
    This isn't a Google problem. The problem is people who buy phones every year, seriously. Every manufacturer has a dozen or so devices out at any one time and new devices come out every 6 months or so. The number of hardware configurations are staggering. Most people replace their devices every two years (or when their contract is up). That means that on average most of the devices out there came out when KitKat came out. It's not worth it for a carrier to try and keep up with so many devices when the vast majority are running an OS that works perfectly fine.

    Compare this with computers, it's like arguing Microsoft should force everyone to use Windows 10, we know how well that would work out. It's not necessary as long as the older OS sees the necessary security updates, some even prefer the older OS. Google has already untied most of it's services from the OS thus relying less on the OS to be updated.

    If you really want to have phones with the latest OS keep them longer. Carriers don't need to update older phones if the majority of people get sucked in by the bling factor of every new phone that came out. If you kept your phone longer they would have to support their phones for more than a month to keep you a customer.
  • LostAlone
    I agree that there is a wider problem with fragmentation, but I think that most people (the author included) forget about how we've ended up in this situation.

    Over the past five years the mobile sector has exploded so fast and technology has progressed so quickly and the result is that many devices get left behind. While last years flagships will generally get an OS update eventually almost no mid end devices do, and neither do more niche devices like tablets. Android is vastly more than just the latest and greatest flagships, and certainly large numbers of devices (again, especially tablets) remain in use long after they have officially end of lifed. That's just how things work. Simply because Android has always been available on lower end devices that more people can afford it's always been more attractive to people who can't afford to upgrade every year. So what's the end result? Lots of mid and low tier devices that people paid for that can't be upgraded that are handed off to kids and teenagers and elderly parents that will run the same version until they fail.

    Fragmentation isn't anyone's fault, it's just how the market place works and it's not really a bad thing. Most older devices won't benefit from newer OS version and neither will their users; these are people who are comfortable with what they are familiar with and won't do anything to change because it works and they want to stick with it. Apple's updates have had a very checkered past in making old devices run substantially worse too, and I won't blame anyone for keeping hold of something that fulfills their needs. It's not like the average person is using their phone to ship secret data.

    I still have a tablet on Gingerbread because there is literally no reason for me to change. All it exists to do is watch movies, read books and browse the web when I travel. Why bother either buying a new device or upgrading the existing one when those are the only functions I care about.
  • Oleg Vorkunov
    And one more thing, that AT&T locked bootloader and not letting users to install different OS, such as Vanilla Android and get their updates timely.
    That practice by AT&T and Verizon should be investigated and taken by the Feds.

  • hannibal
    Why would this be so hard? The pre-installed brand/carrier apps simply try to update themselves... and are REMOVABLE.

    Should it be this hard?

    Actually because of all that bloatware that phones has, it is very difficult. Those bloatware are hacked to work with specific core os. When the core os would change, the phone (read bloatware) would stop working properly. Also, it would encourage peoples to keep the phone longer...
    I keep my phones to 6-10 years, so it is essential that I get updates. At this moment only iPhones and Windows phones, seems to be even near of fulfilling that need... Android phones are not even near in that (Maybe not counting Nexus versions).
    To someone who will buy a new phone every year, or every two years, this may not be a big problem.
    Those drivers mentioned above are another problem. There need to be a coherent driver support to phone parts, or there will not be regular updates. Somewhat easier with iPhones and Windows phones, where the hardware is very regulated.

    But all in all something has to be done to this matter. Most customers, don't care or don't understand the situation, so I am afraid that there is not coming any improvement in this area. Peoples still buy phones that don't get upgrades. So there is not any driving force to make manufacturers to provide program upgrades.
    We need a law that would guarantee money back, if the phone does not get the newest os version within 3-5 months after it release for let say 3 to 5 years from the release of the phone. Maybe that would force manufacturers to reduce the bloatware.
    But I am not hopeful, that it will ever happen.