2 big asterisks to Google's Android upgrade fix

Google's got a new plan for improving Android upgrades, but "Project Treble" may not be the saving grace some folks are expecting.

Google Android Upgrades - Project Treble
JR Raphael

Pay much attention to headlines, and it'd be easy to fall under the impression that Google had finally found the fix to the age-old problem of Android upgrades.

You've seen the news by now, right? Ahead of the I/O developers' conference this week, the gang from Goog announced a new plan to streamline Android upgrades and take some of the pain out of the process. The effort is called Project Treble, and the basic idea is to create a "modular base" for Android that makes it easier for manufacturers to update their devices in a timely manner.

Sound like a lot of gobbledygook? Let me break it down: The short version of Treble is that the guts of Android will soon exist in their own standalone layer within your device's storage (starting with new devices launched with Android O in place). The hardware-specific code manufacturers need to make the device run properly, meanwhile, will live in a totally separate layer called the vendor interface.

That means when Google has a new Android version ready, your phone's manufacturer can get it ready for your device with less work than what's required now -- because all the stuff in that vendor interface can remain constant instead of having to be manually coded into the operating system every time.

Google Project Treble Google

The old setup (at top) vs. the new (at bottom) -- it's all about separation

It's a positive step for the state of Android, to be sure, and on paper seems like a sensible way to help manufacturers speed up their always-underwhelming upgrade delivery habits.

Before you break out the bubbly, though, there's some important context to keep in mind -- specifically, two major points:

1. The scope of the changes

It's crucial to note that Project Treble appears to be focused exclusively on a phone's "lower-level" software -- the device-specific code "written in large part by the silicon manufacturers," as Google explains it. That means it's likely not designed to account for the higher-level factors like all the user-facing interface changes and feature additions so many manufacturers bake into Android before shipping the software to consumers.

I asked Google for clarification. A spokesperson told me only that the vendor interface is designed to "work with" OEM customizations but wasn't yet able to elaborate on what specifically that means. In a discussion on Google+, however, Google Android Framework Engineer Ian Lake noted that Treble "focuses on the level below the OEMs" -- the "silicon manufacturers who do much of the device-specific work" -- and that it "just means that it won't be the silicon manufacturer's fault for a lack of updates." This is consistent with the language used to describe the effort in Google's official blog announcement.

So in other words, device-makers may still have to take the time to incorporate their own custom user-facing changes into the Android code before rolling out a new release -- something that'll continue to require a fair amount of effort and resources.

And that brings us to the broader point:

2. The manufacturer motivation

This is the real "if" upon which the measurable success of this plan hinges: Will Android device-makers actually adjust their behavior as a result of these streamlining efforts?

Project Treble may make the act of processing and delivering updates easier, after all, but it'll still require manufacturers to make upgrade delivery a priority if it's going to make any meaningful and wide-reaching difference. And if history's any indication, that type of customer-centric focus isn't necessarily something we can count on from most Android device-makers -- no matter how hard Google may try to make it happen.

It's a sobering reminder, I realize, but it's critical to keep in mind as we hear all the oohing and ahhing over this over the coming days. Remember, Google has taken steps to encourage timely Android updates and to make the process easier for manufacturers before -- and as we've been reminded time and time again, most of the manufacturers still don't give a damn.

Case in point: With Android L in 2014, Google started providing an early preview release of major Android releases so device-makers could have more time with the software ahead of its actual launch. With Android M in 2015, Google offered that preview even earlier in the year to provide even more time. And with Android N in 2016, Google made the preview available earlier yet so manufacturers would have it in hand in March and with an additional 36 days before its debut.

Despite all of that, upgrades have continued to be an afterthought for most manufacturers -- worse than ever across the board with the current Android N release, in fact, as I observed in my data-driven Android Upgrade Report Card. From my painful post-mortem:

The underlying problem with Android upgrades isn't anything technical. It's the fact that the companies making and selling Android phones have no real motivation to care about high-quality post-sales support and to make timely, ongoing upgrades a priority.

Stop and think about that for a minute in relation to this current Project Treble news. Sure, manufacturers might have less work to do when it comes to updating their Android devices with Treble in place -- but regardless of the specifics, they'll still have some resource-requiring work in front of them. And nothing about their underlying priorities seems to have shifted.

The real rub, as I observed earlier this year:

The business model tells you everything: Google's overarching goal with a Nexus or Pixel device is to provide a spectacular ongoing user experience -- a goal that, understandably, no other company hawking hardware fully shares. Google alone stands to gain by making your phone optimally pleasant for as long as is financially or technically feasible. ...

A company like Samsung, in contrast, stands to gain from a different kind of upgrade -- specifically, from convincing you to upgrade your hardware as often as possible. Providing fast and frequent OS updates not only doesn't help to achieve that goal; in a way, it works directly against it.

Plain and simple, all signs suggest the lackluster update performance we're seeing from Android manufacturers is less about logistics and more about incentive. And admirable as Project Treble effort is in concept and in engineering, it -- much like the various update-improving efforts before it -- doesn't appear to address that underlying issue.

What Project Treble could do is help in situations where chip compatibility is the sole reason for a device being abandoned -- something we've seen plenty over the years, as an investigation over at Ars Technica uncovered. It could also help cut costs and further improve update delivery times for devices where the manufacturers are already motivated, like with phones made by Google and even (at least sometimes) HTC.

When it comes to convincing the companies that clearly don't give two shakes about timely post-sales support, though -- well, time will tell. Before you get too optimistic, just remember how many other well-intentioned efforts have slipped through their hands without inspiring improvement. 

The good news is that if timely ongoing upgrades are important to you, there is an answer out there already. But while Project Treble is undoubtedly a positive step for Android, it's tough to imagine it being an end-all fix for companies that just don't care.

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