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Commit to Android codebase suggests Google may strong-arm phone makers into using 'seamless' partitioned updates

Such a move could standardise deployment of new versions, rather than it being at the whim of OEMs

Despite Google's better efforts, operating system updates on Android have long been a fragmented, disconnected mess. The launch of Android 11 will go some way to resolving that, with Google likely to force manufacturers to use the Virtual A/B partitioned updates system.

A recent commit to the Android Vendor Test Suite (VTS) shows that it will soon check A/B Partitions are enabled for devices running Android 11. If not, the tests will fail.

These changes are not yet in production, and Google could easily change its mind before the official launch of Android 11, which is expected to land in the coming months.

Partitioned – or "seamless" – updates work by copying the new version of Android to a separate partition on the device's internal storage. When the user reboots the phone, they boot into the partition containing the newer software version.

This technology is nothing new. Google introduced the feature with Android 7.0 Nougat, as part of its Project Treble initiative. However, Google failed to mandate that OEMs actually use it. Predictably, this has caused inconsistencies across the Android ecosystem.

Recovery and a pause in the day of the habitual mobile stroker

Some manufacturers, notably Google itself, use A/B Partitions to deliver updates, while others (like Samsung and OPPO) have their own approaches. Many of these rely on the phone entering recovery mode, preventing the user from using the device while the update is installing.

Partitioned updates solve that problem. They also make it easier to roll-back to a known working version of Android, should an install fail or otherwise become corrupted.

Android updates have long been a thorny subject for Google. Unlike iOS, there's no universal standard for how quickly and frequently updates are rolled out as it's primarily the purview of OEMs and carriers.

The end result? Only 12.45 per cent of Android phones use the latest-and-greatest operating system, Android 10, according to Statcounter. Less than half use the last version, Android Pie. Astonishingly, over 9 per cent of Android phones use Version 6.0, which is no longer supported by Google.

To address the problem, Google has unbundled many system-level apps and services from the core operating system, allowing them to be updated through the Google Play Store rather than via an irregular device update.

This has technically made updates quicker and cheaper to deploy, although it's still largely up to the whims of the device manufacturer. Thrusting a standardised update system would help further, but without some serious arm-twisting from Google, it's likely this problem will remain. ®

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