Google Pressures Handset Makers Into Updating Android
According to a recent report, Google may start to rank the Android device makers to force them to increase the frequency with which they update their devices to latest Android version. This new ranking system will put pressure on device makers to provide latest Android updates and embarrass those who are slow.
Currently Android has close to 1.4 billion active users, but unfortunately, the entire ecosystem is heavily fragmented. Unlike Apple's iOS ecosystem, Google does not make the vast majority of Android phones, so Android users are currently at the mercy of different device manufacturers and carriers. For starters, the most recent version, only 7.5 percent of Android devices run Android 6.0 Marshmallow, while 80 percent of Apple devices run the latest iOS 9.
Having a fragmented ecosystem means most of the Android devices are running with various bugs and security related vulnerabilities. At last week's Google I/O developer conference, Android chief Hiroshi Lockheimer said the issue with updates "is the weakest link on security on Android".
Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission wrote a letter to Apple, Google, and operators like AT&T and Verizon, in which it expressed its concern about "significant delays in delivering patches to actual devices and those older devices may never be patched".
To address this, the search giant reportedly created the rankings earlier this year and shared it with Android partners. Now, Bloomberg reports that Google may now open up the list to public scrutiny. If this happens, many device makers will step-up, as it will be a PR disaster for them. It will also complement other efforts Google is working on, including accelerating security updates and reducing phone-testing requirements.
However, the device makers are not the only roadblock in updating Android devices to the latest version. Network operators like AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint also provide challenge to Google. Network operators need to test updates thoroughly to ensure they do not cause network disruption, which means the process can move slower. In addition, operators like Verizon are well known to take their sweet time to test and approve updates. In 2011, Google created the short-lived Android Update Alliance back but it fizzled out mainly due to this.
Google is trying to work around this problem by providing updates to some of its products that come as standalone apps, instead of being part of a new version of the Android OS, so that it can update them without being subject to testing. It has also released a preview of Android N earlier than usual to give manufacturers more time to adapt to it.
After the Stagefright fiasco, Google has started releasing monthly Android security patches. However, these are currently limited to Nexus devices and some high-end smartphones. The search giant is also having a hard time convincing device makers to release these monthly updates for their devices. While LG and Samsung committed to monthly updates, they have struggled to keep to that schedule for all their phones.
In addition, there are also manufacturers like HTC, who claims that rolling out monthly security updates for their devices is "unrealistic".
While the decision to rank the manufacturers and making it public seems like a good idea, Google will never solve this problem without a tighter control over network operators and OEM. As Mike Chan, co-founder of Nextbit pointed out, the best way to solve this problem is a massive re-architecture of the operating system, or training manufacturers and carriers "to be good Android citizens".