Why do Android updates take so long?
Android smartphones in the update check
© Google Whether a major update comes, not only the manufacturer decides. The complex work on a new software version at a glance.
The chipset is the bottleneck
The upcoming Android version O was first presented to the public on March 17, 2017, along with all the tools necessary for software development and a detailed description of many new features. In parallel, Google has released a first version for developers to download. The so-called Developer Preview 1 is primarily intended to give developers an early opportunity to test the system and its new capabilities and subject the compatibility of their own apps to a first review.
The Developer Preview 2 was released on May 17, 2017, which is an official beta that can be downloaded and tested not only by developers, but by anyone who is interested in having a Google phone. In these two early stages, extensive modifications are possible – existing features can be changed and new ones can be added if Google receives the appropriate feedback.
Only with the end of the beta phase and the launch of Developer Preview 3 is Android O “Feature Complete” and the new software interfaces (API) are defined mandatory. From now on, there will be an optimization and bug fix, which lasts until the “Final Release”, which should take place sometime in August / September 2017.
This last step is crucial in terms of software updates, as it adds Android O’s source code to the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), and chipset makers – primarily Qualcomm and Mediatek – decide whether they want new hardware Publish drivers for older processors or not. Only when these drivers are compiled and the so-called Board Support Package (BSP) has been provided can a device manufacturer begin to work on an update. This can cause problems that require consultation with the chipset manufacturer and delay the entire process.
At the end of the development work there is a beta firmware that has to go through various tests and certifications before it can be played over the air on the devices: In addition to Google, the network operators in the local markets must also release the new software (Technical Acceptance). And it’s quite possible that software may have to wait several weeks for Google certification, or that the manufacturer needs to make changes to get certification, which may delay an update by months.
Network operators are no longer brake pads
A few years ago it could take several months for an update already released by the manufacturer to finally reach the smartphones that were distributed via the network operators. This process has been significantly accelerated, because for Telefónica, Telekom and Vodafone the topic has now a very high priority. Not only the functional and security-relevant aspects are in the foreground, but also new services like VoLTE, which only work if the smartphones have been prepared accordingly.
Although the software update is developed by the manufacturer, it must meet the specifications specified by the network operator. When an update has been finalized by the manufacturer, a test and release process follows at the network operators, which takes some days, Vodafone speaks on demand specifically from a calendar week.
The monthly Android security patches are different: Telefónica said on demand that a release here “not mandatory” is required, while Vodafone and Telekom look at these updates on it. Telekom refers in this context to a “shortened validation process”, but left open how much time is saved. In any case, it becomes clear that updates are a high priority for the network operators and the customer can assume that new software will quickly come to their device, even if it has bought it in the mobile phone shop.
Project Treble: Google wants to accelerate updates
With Android O comes also a changed system architecture, which should enable the manufacturers to develop version updates without chipset driver.
According to Google, these are the biggest changes to the system architecture since the introduction of Android nine years ago. The key element is a new hardware interface, the so-called vendor interface, which is located between the Android system and the chipset drivers and separates both.
The resulting modular structure allows device manufacturers to adapt a new system version to older smartphones without having to wait for the specific chipset drivers – a Board Support Package is no longer necessary.
Project Treble is being introduced with Android O, which means that only smartphones that come with the new Android version come from the factory – older smartphones go empty-handed. But you should not expect too much from it, because Google ultimately eliminates just one of many intermediate steps in the complex update procedure.