Non-consistent updates on Android devices have plagued the platform since its initial rise to popularity. Project Treble is Google’s plan to help manufacturers streamline the update process for more timely updates.
One of the biggest complaints against Android as an operating system is something generally referred to as “fragmentation.” The traditional definition is “the process of being broken into small or separate parts,” which directly translates to its negative connotation for Android: there are eight different versions of Android currently in the wild, still in use on various types of hardware.
The standard here is, of course, set by Apple with the iPhone. Where Android’s most prolific version is the nearly two-year-old Android 7.x (Nougat), nearly three-quarters of all iOS devices are running the latest version (iOS 11).
By comparison, Android’s distribution numbers are grim, with 28.1 percent of phones running Android 6.x (Marshmallow), and 28.5 percent on Android 7.x (Nougat)—that means over half of the Android phones out there are running a nearly-two-year-old operating system. A meager 1.1 percent are running the latest version—Android 8.x (Oreo). To put it even more bluntly, over 98 percent of Android devices are running outdated software—over 36 percent are running five year old (or older) software. Ouch!
Clearly, there’s a massive disconnect there. The reason for this is multi-faceted, unfortunately, but can generally be attributed to two key points: manufacturers and Google’s update cycle. We’ve gone into detail about this before, so I’ll save you all the details and just point you in that direction if you’re curious about how it’s the manufacturers’ fault.
The reason manufacturers have such a hard time pushing out prompt updates is because of all the work that has to go into getting the operating system to communicate with the hardware.
Traditionally, it worked something like this: the OS framework and low-level software were all part of the same code. So when the OS got updated, this low-level software–technically referred to as vendor implementation—also had to get updated. That’s a lot of work.
So, starting with Android 8.x (Oreo), Google separated the two. That means the Android OS itself can be updated without having to touch the vendor implementation. That, in turn, can be updated by itself if needed.
To put that in full context, before an update can be pushed out to an Android 7.x (or earlier) device, not only does the Android OS code have to be updated, but so does the low-level hardware code, which is generally maintained by the chip maker. So, for example, if Samsung wants to push an update to one of its phones, it has to wait for Qualcomm (or whoever made the chip) to update its code to work with the new Samsung code. That’s a lot of wheels turning at once, and each one is dependent on the other.
With Android 8.x and beyond, it won’t be like this anymore. Since the core hardware code is separate from the OS code, device manufacturers will be free to update their software without having to wait for the silicon maker to also update its code.
This should dramatically speed up the update process—in theory, at least. Updating devices will still be in the manufacturer’s hands, and since the first Oreo devices outside of the Google-maintained Pixel line are just now rolling out, we haven’t yet had a chance to fully see this in practice. Hopefully, it actually makes a significant change to the speed in which updates are written and pushed out.
Now that’s the million dollar question, right? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t so simple (surely you didn’t expect it to be). That said, here are some facts:
In short: Treble support on updated systems is still up to the manufacturers, but new Oreo devices will be required to support Treble moving forward.
So, for example, the Pixel 2 already supports Project Treble. The forthcoming Galaxy S9 will also support Treble out of the box. Google also updated the Pixel 1 to support Treble, but it’s unfortunately it looks like Samsung left it out of the Oreo build for the Galaxy S8.
If you’re curious about your own device, Android Police has a running list of all devices that will get Treble support, as well as a which ones will get updated to Oreo without Treble.
Android OS updates have been a constant point of contention for many years now, so it’s good to see Google finally addressing the issue. With any luck, this will put all Android devices closer to parity with Apple in terms of device updates.
Image Credit: Google