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Google, Qualcomm team up to make long-term Android updates easier on Snapdragon

Long-term patching problems still haunt web giant's mobile OS platform

Google and Qualcomm have linked arms to extend the lifecycle of new Android devices, meaning future phones could receive as many as three major operating system updates provided they're running the latest Snapdragon silicon.

This has been accomplished by reducing the amount of effort required by chipset manufacturers like Qualcomm to support newer Android versions.

Since Google's Project Treble reforms in 2017, Android has been modularised, splitting the hardware interactions (called a "vendor implementation") from the rest of the operating system (called a Generic System Image). While this reduced the amount of work OEMs need to undertake to support existing devices, a portion of that burden has been shifted onto the shoulders of chipset manufacturers, who are responsible for building and maintaining vendor implementations.

"For each SoC model, the SoC manufacturers now needed to create multiple combinations of vendor implementations to support OEMs who would use that chipset to launch new devices and deploy OS upgrades on previously launched devices," said Google's Android Developers Blog.


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"The result is that three years beyond the launch of a chipset, the SoC vendor would have to support up to six combinations of OS framework software and vendor implementations."

This comes with a cost. Because SoC manufacturers are forced to support multiple vendor implementations, they're limited in how many system updates they can ultimately support in the long term. Google's answer is to apply a "no-retroactivity principle" to chipsets, allowing SoC vendors to reuse the same vendor implementation across both launches and device upgrades.

Google's wording is vague enough to apply to any chipset manufacturer in the Android space but Qualcomm is the first to sign up. This new approach will debut on all of its chipsets that launch with Android 11 or later. To date, this includes the Snapdragon 888 and 678 platforms.

Google's white whale

For well over a decade, timely Android updates have proven to be Google's unassailable white whale. Whereas iPhone users get the latest iOS update on the day of release, those in the Android camp are at the mercy of their device's manufacturer, who may choose to issue a late release, or might not bother at all.

This is largely a consequence of Google's growth strategy for Android, which focused on the software while taking a hands-off approach when it came to the actual implementation by OEMs. Vendors have final say on software updates, as well as whether to add extras that could complicate future updates, such as bundled software and UI customisation.

Things can get more complicated when you talk about carrier-locked phones. Admittedly, this issue mostly impacts punters in the US, where people typically buy phones on contract from their chosen network. These devices often ship with carrier-issued bloatware, and updates are delivered directly by networks themselves.

This is bad for consumers, who have to tolerate outdated software and missing security patches. But it's not great for Google either, which has to grapple with a fragmented ecosystem and a growing malware problem.

You could even say it's a point of embarrassment for Google, which no longer publishes version statistics to its website, and was mocked for its fragmentation woes by Tim Cook during an Apple Keynote.

Project Treble attempted to solve this problem of fragmentation by decoupling the lower-level components of Android — which are responsible for hardware interactions — from the rest of the operating system. This latest collaboration between Google and Qualcomm builds upon that, and promises Qualcomm's chipset software is forward-compatible with future releases.

Still, it isn't a silver bullet. While OEMs and carriers are now empowered to deliver up to three version updates to punters, it's ultimately their choice. Many will opt to do the bare minimum. ®

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