Can Google Fix Android's Biggest Problem?

By Darren Orf on at

Google is not happy — or at least that’s what it sounds like when you read Bloomberg’s look into the company’s relationship with smartphone manufacturers. According to the report, Google is aggressively addressing Android’s biggest problem: fragmentation, or the fact that few of Android’s 1.4 billion users are using the latest version of the operating system. While Apple’s iOS enjoys healthy adoption rates whenever a new update for the software rolls out, it takes manufacturers a very long time to adopt Android’s newest features — if they ever add them at all.

Bloomberg says Google will use a two-pronged approach to try to remedy the updates problem. The first part is practical: the company will streamline the update process to make it easier for manufacturers to keep up. The other part sounds downright coercive: it’s apparently considering publicly shaming OEMs that lag behind the pack.

Google is using more forceful tactics. It has drawn up lists that rank top phone makers by how up-to-date their handsets are, based on security patches and operating system versions, according to people familiar with the matter. Google shared this list with Android partners earlier this year. It has discussed making it public to highlight proactive manufacturers and shame tardy vendors through omission from the list, two of the people said. The people didn’t want to be identified to maintain their relationships with Google.

That is some Game of Thrones-level scheming right there.

Google’s frustration with fragmentation isn’t unwarranted. Most Android phones don’t get the newest versions of Android until months after they’re released by Google, and it can take more than a year in some cases. For example, it took Samsung and US carrier AT&T almost seven months to push Android Marshmallow updates to the Galaxy S6, its 2015 flagship phone. The problem stems from the fact that manufacturers have to build the new software into their own custom versions, and then carriers need to test the new updates on their networks. As Bloomberg notes, Verizon can take months to get an update through the pipeline to its US users. This is problematic as anything more than six months in the gadget world is practically a lifetime.

The numbers speak for themselves. Apple says that 84 per cent of its users are on iOS 9, its latest software release. By contrast, Android Marshmallow, which has been out since October, is only on eight per cent of Android devices.

The need to get more phones updated quicker isn’t just a question of getting the newest features. Sure it's a bane for developers who want to build for the latest and greatest version of Android, but the more pressing problem was laid bare last year during the shitshow surrounding the Stagefright bug, which let hackers infect Android phones with a malicious text. If you were on a Nexus phone running stock Android, you received critical security updates protecting against the flaw almost instantly. But if you were on any other Android phone, you were left exposed for months.

Both iOS and Android have inherent weaknesses due to differing philosophies about what a smartphone should be. Apple’s iPhone is the epitome of centralised control. Everything runs through Cupertino, so you can be confident that your phone is secure. Over-the-air updates arrive instantly. But this tight-gripped ecosystem makes the iPhone a so-called walled-garden. For example, iOS 8 in 2014 was the first time developers could really create third-party applications like alternate keyboards, which you’ve had on Android for years. Apple still doesn’t let developers touch certain areas of iOS. For example, Siri remains isolated, lonely, and pretty useless (though rumours suggest that might finally be changing soon).

Can Google Fix Android's Biggest Problem?

Android fragmentation by August 2015. Each box represents a different Android device and each colour a different version of Android. (Image: Open Signal.)

Google’s open-source system offers greater diversity and customisation to developers. It’s why Google Now is infinitely more useful than Siri, even with its new Proactive intelligence in iOS 9. But Android’s weakness is fragmentation. It makes Android insecure and unappetising to developers who have to build apps across several flavours of Android and the 24,093 different devices currently being used, according to Open Signal.

And why would developers deal with that headache when you can build one iOS app with a few variations and still reach a huge swath of people. Better developer tools makes things easier, but if you’re launching a new app iOS is still the more logical choice, despite Android’s dominant market share. Developers have certainly progressed from the “iOS, then maybe Android” mentality, but in most cases, it still the second app that gets made.

Google has been toying with the idea of imposing its will on Android phone makers for a while. At Google I/O, it disguised that ambition with what it calls Daydream-ready smartphones, which will have to adhere to certain specifications determined by Google so that they will work with its new VR platform. There have been rumours that Google wants to design its own Android chips, much like Apple’s A-series chips. Its Material Design guidelines were a mostly successful effort to get the look and feel of Android to be more consistent. Google even released the next version of Android, codenamed N, with a new beta program in March in order to give manufacturers more time to make changes to their platforms before Android’s stable release is available this autumn.

But this is both a hardware and a software problem. Pushing for a streamlined update process, like eliminating critical security updates from carrier testing or making core functions standalone apps, will certainly help things.

In the end, quashing the problem might be a painful process because fragmentation is a direct result of Android’s open-source idealism. To eliminate it completely, Google would need to seriously reconsider what an Android phone looks like and how they work. It could, for example, force a universal update system, which would undoubtedly cause a tidal wave of backlash from both manufacturers and the core Android community.

All Google can really do now is demand firmly that phone makers and carriers get their shit together and lead by example. And let’s hope they manage to rein it in a bit, because if they don’t, people like us, who actually buy these Android phones, will be the ones who pay the price. [Bloomberg]