Android smartphone users are well used to a long wait when it comes to getting hold of the new versions of Google's mobile operating system on their older handsets. But the company argues its multi-year Project Treble with silicon makers is paying off for end-users and developers.
Google kicked off Project Treble in 2017 with all devices that shipped with Android 8.0 Oreo to streamline operating system updates across the massive ecosystem of Android device makers. Google hailed it the "biggest change yet to low-level system architecture". But now three years on, how successful has Treble been?
Treble is meant to address Android's decade-long OS version fragmentation problem, which prevents many Android device owners from getting the latest features from Google and its latest security and privacy innovations. Adoption is also important for developers who want to use the latest platform features to improve the experience of their apps, even if Google has alleviated this by pushing more system updates through Google Play Services and the Play Store.
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Google has now revealed how it's judging the success of Project Treble, which can be seen in Google's Android version dashboard for developers, and some of the obstacles.
The dashboard doesn't look pretty. Google hasn't updated it since May (it used to be updated monthly), but it currently indicates that Android 9.0 Pie from 2018 is running on just 10.4% of devices. Android Oreo is still the dominant version, running on nearly a third of Android devices, while 19% are running Nougat from 2016, and 16% of the two billion or so Android phones are still on Marshmallow from 2015.
Meanwhile, Google released Android 10 in September, bringing features like suggested actions in Smart Reply, system-level dark theme, and dozens of security and privacy features. Android 10 doesn't feature in the current snapshot of version adoption.
But according to Iliyan Malchev, an architect of Project Treble, the project is paying off. The two key factors it needed to assess to see if the program was leading to success were complexity and time. Basically, it involved checking whether Android 8.0 Oreo and higher devices upgrading faster than all previous versions since Treble only applied to Android 8.0 and up.
Together these would indicate whether changes to silicon were translating into faster updates in the wider Android ecosystem.
"The new architecture was a major overhaul, meaning it could only be implemented for devices launching with Android 8.0 Oreo and not for devices upgrading from Android 7.0 Nougat and older versions," he wrote.
"We had to wait until we released Android 9 Pie to measure the rate of upgrades from Oreo and compare this number to the previous releases."
Third-party research has shown that HMD Global's Nokia Android phones are the fastest to receive version and security updates, while Samsung, Xiaomi and Huawei -- which can't use Android on new phones due to US trade restrictions -- also performed well in recent years.
Inside Google, Malchev says the earliest sign Treble was working was its beta program for Android 9 Pie, which included seven device models from seven phone manufacturers. This year that jumped to 18 devices on top of the Pixel, representing 12 manufacturers.
"This represents a significant increase over the previous year and shows that Project Treble is having an impact," he wrote.
While Google's Android version dashboard is outdated with respect to Android 10, Google is actually looking at Android 9 Pie to determine Treble's success. One year after Pie launched, the adoption rate is substantially higher than Oreo. So, while there's still a lot of fragmentation below Oreo, things look neater above that point.
"In late July, 2018, just before Android 9 Pie was launched in AOSP, Android 8.0 (Oreo) accounted for 8.9% of the ecosystem. By comparison, in late August 2019, just before we launched Android 10, Android 9 (Pie) accounted for 22.6% of the ecosystem. This makes it the largest fraction of the ecosystem, and shows that Project Treble has had a positive effect on updatability," wrote Malchev.
Google also claims its work with silicon makers "had the effect of reducing the average time to upgrade by more than 3 months", which should mean speedier updates from Android 9 to Android 10.
And Malchev points to Xiaomi, fringe Android handset brand from Android co-creator Andy Rubin, Essential, and OnePlus as examples of its success.
"We are beginning to see the effects already. This year, we saw two OEMs issue software updates to Android 10 on the day we announced it: Xiaomi and Essential. On the same day, OnePlus started a public beta program, and just a few days later, they started updating devices. HMD Global's Nokia 8.1 just started receiving the update this week. In addition to these partners, many manufacturers such as ASUS, LG, Motorola, OPPO, Realme, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, Transsion, and Vivo have committed to updating some of their devices to Android 10 by the end of the year. Plus, new devices are already hitting shelves with Android 10, such as the OnePlus 7T."