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Android P inclusivity takes a strong stab at fragmentation

by Justin Herrick | May 11, 2018May 11, 2018 12:00 pm PST

We all love software updates. Aside from bug fixes to rid our devices of any annoyances, they often bring new features. They’re not the same between Android and iOS, though. There couldn’t be a bigger difference between the two most popular mobile operating systems.

Since the entire ecosystem is controlled by Apple, software updates are issued and immediately reach a significant number of iOS devices. Google, however, struggles because it does not own all 2 billion Android devices in the world. Both companies have secured massive user bases, but the ways they’re handled are completely unique.

Android has been a disaster for almost ten years in this regard. Unless you’ve only ever owned Pixel or Nexus devices, you know that software updates on Google’s platform are few and far between. That’s if you get them at all.

In 2018, there could be a turning point. Fragmentation won’t be brought to an end this year or next, but it does seem like Google’s figured out a way to make its partners’ lives easier.

With the introduction of Android 8.0 Oreo last year, we learned about Treble. The word “project” has been dropped from its name as it’s fully integrated into the platform for new devices. Treble places Android’s framework alongside a company’s software overlay. Rather than making the two pieces fit together like a puzzle where constant testing is necessary, the revised format for updates makes the two sides run parallel together.

Trebel is by no means a guaranteed fix for fragmentation. It could be effective, and if it is, the results won’t come in for a long time. That’s because existing devices that are upgraded to Oreo don’t need to have Treble support. Treble is limited to devices shipping with Oreo out of the box.

We’re only a year into what might be a viable strategy, yet there’s something about Android P that has me feeling confident.

Android P was announced earlier in the year, and Google explained its main features during the I/O 2018 keynote. A surprise came from the Android P Beta. As expected, the beta program includes Pixel phones. But there are also seven phones from various partners that can also partake in the beta program.

This is the first time ever that non-Google hardware can test the next version of Android before its public release.

The names jumping at the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with Google may not include Samsung and Huawei, but there are still well-known brands here.

Nokia Mobile, Vivo, OnePlus, Xiaomi, Sony, Essential, and Oppo are standing by Google’s side. It’s a joint effort to get Oreo on existing devices much faster. As much as they need Google, Google needs them.

Google can’t drown out the noise. Android’s fragmentation is damaging its brand, and it has been for a long time. If Google wants the world to look at Android as a mature and secure platform, Treble must succeed.

Partners, too, need Treble to avoid falling apart. When shopping for a new phone, consumers are considering longevity. Will the hardware keep up? Is it going to get software updates? On the Android side, you’re guaranteed immediate upgrades with a Pixel phone. Even Samsung struggles to get software updates and security patches rolled out in a timely manner.

The inclusivity of the Android P Beta makes it clear that Google wants everyone coming along for the ride to make fragmentation less of a problem.

As Treble gains momentum, fragmentation will be chipped away at. Then software updates on Android go from embarrassing to respected. No, it’ll never be as easy as Apple’s approach with iOS. Anything, however, is better than the current state.

In the future, there could be a time when anyone with a modern Android device taps the ‘Check for update’ button and actually receives a software update within a reasonable window. Google will always get the latest version of Android out first, but nothing says its partners can’t follow within days or weeks rather than months.

The whole theme of Android is that it’s a free, open platform. “Be together. Not the same.” Remember when Google used that as its slogan? If the company pulls away from its partners, Android essentially becomes the same as iOS. There would no reason for consumers to choose anything over the Pixel phones.

Google does still need assistance to further dominate the mobile industry, anyway.

While the company may have purchased HTC’s mobile division for more than $1 billion, Google is far from prepared to scale its hardware business on an Apple- or Samsung-like level. It’s many years away from achieving that. Also, Android is so successful because of its affordability. You shouldn’t expect Google to roll out dirt cheap entry-level products for emerging markets.

Android P reminds us that, yes, the plan is for the platform to remain as inclusive as ever. The beta program indicates Google wants to make Android better for everyone involved, not just itself.


Justin Herrick

Justin is easily attracted to power buttons. His interest in technology started as a child in the 1990s with the original PlayStation, and two...

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