The newest version of Google's Android mobile operating system, unveiled Monday as "Oreo" after the sandwich cookie, will start rolling out in the coming months. As it does, users will be treated to several subtle but useful new features: the ability to minimize an app in the corner of the screen, open apps directly from a web browser with no installation required, and access new types of emoji. But the software's most noteworthy improvement turns out to be one Android owners won't experience firsthand.
That's because Google is making a big change in how its operating system upgrades are prepared for release. It falls under an initiative called Project Treble, and Google hopes it will speed up the process of pushing new software out to the many smartphones around the world that run on Android.
Before Android users can download and install each update, the software must go through several steps. But the time it takes for these updates to arrive has been an Achilles heel for Google. That's because the validation process can be onerous: Chip makers, smartphone manufacturers and carriers all must modify and test the update before it becomes available to consumers, a practice that typically takes several months.
Most Android phones are thus running software that's out of date. As of early August, only around 13% of Android devices were running Nougat, the operating system's latest iteration. A majority of Android gadgets are still on Marshmallow (two generations old), or worse, Lollipop, which arrived nearly three years ago. Step back to 2013's KitKat (four generations old) and more Android devices are still running it than last year's Nougat upgrade, according to the Android Developer Dashboard.
Project Treble would in theory shore up this disparity by removing the need for additional hardware-related work by chipmakers before a release launches. Google described this in May as separating the Android operating system framework from specific vendor implementations, which is just a way of saying that it wants to draw a line between the software and proprietary silicon-related aspects of a given device. If all vendors have to do is update the software, they can get new versions of Android out to users much faster.
"The problem we had to solve was that vendor and OS code was deeply intertwined," Stephanie Saad Cuthbertson, a director of product management for Android at Google, said during a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" session in July."The device maker had to depend on the silicon vendor and had to wait until the silicon vendor released that code, and then had to integrate that code." The company said on Monday that device makers such as Samsung, LG, Motorola, Essential and others are scheduled to update their devices to Android Oreo by year's end.
The sluggish upgrade process has over time spawned additional fragmentation problems. Because Google's software is designed to run on gadgets made by dozens of companies in various parts of the world, making the software itself consistent has been a constant challenge. What it feels like to use Android can vary wildly between devices, since in addition to running different software versions, many include unique interfaces and features.
That degree of choice is part of Android's appeal, but it can also be confusing. Lagging major updates not only means users miss out on new features, but it places phones and tablets at risk, since new software often means better security. Android Oreo, for example, will come with Google Play Protect, which scans the apps in Google's Play Store to make sure they haven't been infected with malware. Last year's update, Android Nougat, added privacy-boosting extras such as file-based encryption and direct boot, which enables apps to run securely before a device is unlocked after restarting. As hackers get better at working around existing security safeguards, installing software updates becomes all the more important.
Apple has an advantage over Google when it comes to deploying new software across its iPhones and iPads. Since Apple doesn't have to work with multiple phone manufacturers, it can release an update that works for all supported devices at a given time, rather than waiting for individual companies to roll it out on their own schedules. It's a problem that's always impacted Android, and it's refreshing to see Google commit more resources toward a solution it probably should have explored years ago.