The Android update landscape is a disaster that has plagued the OS for years. “Fragmentation” is a common complaint against Android, but some manufacturers are starting to take the necessary steps to correct this years-long problem.

Understanding How Android Updates Work

To understand why manufacturers have such an issue keeping Android updated, we should probably first talk about how these updates work. Sony recently crafted an infographic that aims to explain how Android updates work, but here’s the gist:

  1. Google provides the Platform Developer Kit to the manufacturer.
  2. The manufacturer gets the software ready for its hardware.
  3. The manufacturer writes the necessary code to get the various processors to work with the OS.
  4. They put the basics into play: calls, messages, and internet connectivity.
  5. They add custom software to the OS.
  6. They test the almost-ready product internally for bugs.
  7. They then test the OS externally.
  8. Manufacturers ensure that the OS meets Bluetooth and Wi-Fi standards.
  9. Carriers help test the versions of the OS for their network.
  10. The “final” product is launched.
  11. The manufacturer then monitors social, and tech channels for user reports.

That’s the life of an Android update according to Sony. You can probably see why this takes time and it’s difficult for manufacturers to stay on top of updates.

What Google is Doing to Help

Since Google is continually under scrutiny for Android updates—which we should mention are not Google’s fault—the company has been taking steps to help manufacturers get updates pushed out faster.

This started with the Android Update Alliance, which didn’t accomplish much. Then in 2017 Google recommitted to providing manufacturers with a way to release faster updates through a feature called Project Treble. In short, this separates the Android layer and the vendor hardware layers, allowing them to be updated separately.

While Treble isn’t required on devices that were released running Nougat or below, all modern devices (anything released with Oreo and above) are required to support Treble out of the box. That’s a big deal for updates.

What the Android Pie Beta Told Us About Manufacturers

When Google released the developer and beta builds for Android Pie (9.0), a handful of phones outside of the Pixel got in on the action for the first time. This included phones from OnePlus, Essential, Sony, Xiaomi, Nokia, Oppo, and Vivo. That’s a big deal.

This suggests that these manufacturers care about updates. They want to take advantage of the system Google built into Oreo to provide timely updates to their phones, which is a massive step in the right direction. Moving forward, everyone should pay close attention to these manufacturers, because they’re the ones that will hopefully set the bar for Android updates.

Of course, there are caveats here. Essential isn’t doing well as a company. OnePlus is a mess that’s getting harder to trust. Sony releases a lot of phones throughout the year, so which ones will get updated could be a gamble.

But here’s the thing: these companies are still showing promise. They’re making moves. They’re taking the initiative. You don’t see Samsung, HTC, or LG on that list. We’re not suggesting those are bad companies, of course, but we’d love to see them get more involved with Google’s updates by taking advantage of things like beta access.

Those are all companies that have poor track records of providing timely Android updates. Samsung has gotten better over the last few years, but it’s still a long way from doing a good job. It did promise monthly security patches for unlocked Galaxy models. That’s a step in the right direction.

We’re not suggesting that you should run out and buy the newest phone from Oppo or Nokia of course—just that you should pay attention to them. It’ll be interesting to see what these companies do moving forward, and a longer timeline will make that clearer. Essential released the Pie update the same day as Google, but it also doesn’t heavily modify its software. That makes for an easy update.

As for the others, update announcements are trickling out. And all eyes should be on the companies that opted to take part in the Pie beta program because how they handle updates moving forward is important—if it was all for show and the updates don’t roll out any faster than previously, that’s not good.

But if they step up and provide faster updates, that’s a good start. If that process can then trickle down to the other phones offered by those companies, we’ll start to see some real progress where updates are concerned. That should, in turn, cause other manufacturers to take notice and follow suit.

It’s a small step, but any step in the right direction is one worth watching.

Cameron Summerson Cameron Summerson
Cameron Summerson is the News Editor for How-To Geek and Review Geek. He’s been covering technology for nearly a decade and has written over 4,000 posts and hundreds of product reviews in that time. He’s been published in print magazines and quoted as a smartphone expert in the New York Times.
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