Timely Android upgrades become even more important today – here’s why

Samsung’s bold promise to provide three years of Android upgrades last year was warmly received. In contrast, OnePlus’s revelation that its Nord series phones are only getting a year’s worth was heavily criticized. Fragmentation has always been a problem on Android, but it was the only thing for advanced users and developers to worry about. However, these days, even regular consumers have become more savvy about which Android version their phones are running and when will they get the next update. As a result, manufacturers, especially the bigger ones, have to step up their Android upgrade game because of user demand and because it has never been more important to deliver the latest version of Android to everyone as soon as possible.

Android upgrades and security updates

The sorry state of software updates on Android really came to the fore in 2015 with the disclosure of the Stagefright bug. It highlighted how manufacturers and Google themselves were incompetent to handle the rapid release of security patches and bug fixes. A lot has changed in the Android landscape since then, with Google’s monthly Android security bulletin and similar monthly releases from some manufacturers. Unfortunately, this is no longer enough.

Android has two types of software updates, matching most of the release strategies in other major pieces of software such as Apple’s iOS and macOS. First, there are minor maintenance updates that have adopted the monthly cadence, at least as far as Google is concerned. They include patches to plug security holes and fix some bugs that could be addressed without significant changes to the underlying platform.

And then every year there are major Android upgrades released that used to have sweet nicknames. These bring about more significant changes to the operating system, even if users don’t always notice it. While Google releases a new Android version more or less like clockwork every year, it’s always been a guessing game for owners of devices made by other companies, and that needs to change quickly for the better.

under the hood

Each new Android version has brought visual changes to the user experience, but not all of them have completely redesigned the UI like the others. For example, Android 9 Pie introduced the gesture-based navigation system, moving away from the years-old three-button system, and subsequent releases simply refined the implementation without breaking compatibility. Android 5.0 Lollipop introduced Material Design in 2014, with only minor improvements over the years. Android 12 is making its first big leap later this year with Material Design 2.0, aka “Material You”.

That said, each Android release always brings significant changes under the hood, even if they don’t break backward compatibility. Old systems are replaced or removed while new ones are installed. All of these aim to optimize Android for the latest trends and needs in the mobile market.

The permission system is probably one of the biggest examples of significant changes to the foundation of Android. Almost every new version fixes Android’s permissions, giving users more power to protect their privacy and limiting the damage malicious apps can be able to do. These changes are often implemented in response to time, and time is changing faster than ever.

patches are not enough

Google releases security fixes every month, and thankfully some manufacturers are trying to keep up. However, those patches only address problems that can or need to be fixed quickly without making massive changes to Android’s code. Unfortunately, not all bugs are like this.

There will always be bugs that require significant changes to the platform that can break things if not implemented properly. Although Google tries as much as possible to maintain compatibility with older Android versions, a new release is an opportunity to offer a new solution. Until users receive this particular Android upgrade, they remain vulnerable to uncovered security holes in older versions.

There are also outdated features or concepts that can only be replaced with more widespread and aggressive releases. Changes to the permissions system, multimedia framework, and even software upgrade systems require drastic changes to the operating system itself that cannot be quickly delivered to phones in monthly patches. While it’s understandable that it takes time to test and roll out these big changes, manufacturers and carriers are sadly aware that it takes too long to do so.

this is complex

The pace of adoption of new Android releases is always compared to iOS. In an ideal world, Android upgrades would be like iOS, rolling out almost immediately to compatible devices with a delay of a few weeks. For better or worse, Android operates in a completely different world, and things work differently there.

Android’s journey begins at Google, but it includes so many players that the pipeline can stop at any time and at any point. A lot of blame is placed on manufacturers and carriers, but even chipset makers like Qualcomm and MediaTek play a role in the development, testing, certification and distribution of a new Android release.

Android is almost 13 years old, and unfortunately, it hasn’t completely solved that problem yet. Google is working on new systems to rectify that situation, but unfortunately, it’s still far from ideal.

need for speed

This fragmentation isn’t just the egg on Android users’ faces; It also makes them vulnerable to security flaws and bugs that cannot be fixed with small patches. In addition to not having the latest features and the brightest new UI, it also means they may not be getting the most optimized version of the operating system for today’s devices.

There is a great emphasis on privacy these days, and on mobile, that is often exposed through permissions and other privacy-related frameworks, such as indicators of when a camera or GPS is being used. Security trends and behavior today are changing faster than ever, and Android needs to follow them to better protect users. Unfortunately, this agility becomes moot if users are left running 2019 or earlier versions of Android.

Android upgrade brings performance improvements not only from Android itself. More often than not, new releases also include updates from component manufacturers that fix bugs and improve the operation of the hardware. Until users get these upgrades, they will not be able to get the most out of their phones and tablets, at least up to the latest capabilities that have been enabled by their manufacturers.

Light at the end of the tunnel

Fortunately, Google is well aware of this problem and is working to fix that situation, at least from its end. Efforts such as Project Treble and Project Mainline try to simplify the process by splitting or moving platform pieces where it would be easier to push major updates without waiting for a new Android version. Unfortunately, these efforts aren’t progressing at a brisk pace, even though Project Treble has been a necessity for new Android phones for years.

Part of the problem still lies at other points along the way, namely with manufacturers and carriers. If OEMs and network operators don’t improve their own processes, all the improvements that Google Platforms tries to make won’t help. The bottlenecks with the treble and mainline remain the same as before.

final thoughts

When it comes to software versions and upgrades, many consumers and businesses avoid Android due to platform incompatibility and fragmentation. Some manufacturers really take advantage of this by doing their own thing and making their own set of commitments, but only for a small selection of their phones. Even within the same brand, lower-end phones get a different treatment for upgrades, simply because they are not a priority.

This situation has to change soon and not because it is getting embarrassing. The number of Android devices on the market isn’t going to drop anytime soon, and it will only get worse if left unattended. Consumers need to be smarter and more vocal about the demand for faster and more regular Android upgrades, even for mid-range or entry-level phones. And then, perhaps, we can start dreaming about phones that get an Android upgrade for five years.

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