A big focus for Google in recent years when it comes to Android has been updates — specifically, in making them easier for hardware manufacturers to support. The two largest (public) efforts undertaken in service of this initiative to date are Projects Treble and Mainline, both of which have been designed to modularize and simplify the process of updating Android devices by making key portions of the OS less dependent on the underlying platform version. There’s also clear evidence these initiatives are having a positive impact: Android 11 experienced the quickest adoption of any version of the OS to date. All of this is encouraging, and all of it is good.
The days of radical changes to user-facing features and interface elements in Android are long gone.
Believe it or not, Android as a concept is almost old enough to vote — the brainchild of disgraced founder Andy Rubin was conceived all the way back in 2003. While the Silicon Valley startup ambition that brought Android into this world has little bearing upon the OS as it exists today, it underscores just how much time Android itself has had to mature and evolve. And if you look at the last few versions of Google’s mobile operating system, that bears out: the days of radical changes to user-facing features and interface elements in Android are long gone (even if Android 12 could be its biggest visual touch-up in years), replaced by more practical focuses, like privacy and usability. The last major interface overhaul was probably Lollipop. But even as Android 11 shows improvement on the update situation for end users, this is no moment for Google to kick its feet up. Android 12 should put the pedal to the metal on long-term software support, starting with a more turnkey path than ever for manufacturers to Android 13.
It’s easy to forget, but five years ago there were really no Android phones — even Google’s — that received more than two major OS updates. The Nexus 6P launched with Android 6.0, and its end of life came with Android 8.1 a little over two years later. It wasn’t until the first Pixel that Google supported three major OS updates, and that wasn’t even something it had promised at the time that phone launched; it just so happened that Google decided to do it. And of the phones that did get two OS updates during this era, frequently they were so late and so broken that the two-year phone upgrade cycle was a matter of sanity as much as consumerist hype. I remember just how unusable a lot of phones became as they were updated — it was legitimately a huge problem.
Most other Android smartphone OEMs have no larger policy about how long their phones will be supported.
Fast forward to today, though, and the situation with Android updates has very appreciably changed. Samsung is offering three major OS updates for most of its premium phones going forward, and it’s also become pretty speedy about rolling them out. Even OnePlus is trying to be better about updates, while Google continues to set the bar. But that is effectively where the feel-good stories end. Most other Android smartphone OEMs have no larger policy about how long their phones will be supported, and offer no assurances about how quickly those updates will be available. Even getting them to commit to monthly security patches has been a slow grind for progress, a situation we’ve rather closely monitored. Overall, things are getting better, but I’m not sure anyone would yet describe the situation as being “good.” Unless you’re using a Pixel, things are at best unideal if you have a Samsung flagship, and at worst still just plain bad if you use almost any other phone. That’s not anything to be proud of.
Software updates have become more important than ever — even if consumers at large don’t understand or acknowledge this.
Certainly, most people do not care about which version of which operating system their smartphone runs. Some even actively resent software updates because of their reputation for breaking things, causing slowdowns, or reducing battery life. While this is all true, none of it serves to refute the fact that running the newest version of software available makes your smartphone more secure and more likely to remain usable long term. As more and more people keep their phones for upwards of three years and beyond, software updates have become more important than ever — even if consumers at large don’t understand or acknowledge this, and could not care less about it. But for Google as the platform architect, there should be a true sense of urgency about upgradeability. And it should be placing greater pressure on partners to support that initiative instead of constantly rolling back more stringent requirements, as it has with Android’s seamless update feature.
Android 12 will probably be the “easiest” annual version of Android for partners to upgrade to, and Android 13 will probably be yet easier than that. That’s just kind of the way things have been going for a while now, and there’s little reason to suspect Google would backslide. But getting Google to say the quiet part out loud — that it’s explicitly focused on realizing a future where Android updates are no longer a point of differentiation between brands — could go a long way toward building the momentum necessary to do just that.
As ever more brands participate in Google’s official developer previews, it’s clear now that the “effort” bar is at an all-time low for companies to just do right by their customers and support their products. A promise, for example, that any phone which participates in these previews will receive Android 12 within six weeks of its final release, could put Google’s money where its mouth is. Further than that? A promise that the same will be true of Android 13 for all of these phones one year later. Mind you, these are just ideas for publicly announcing what would be an unprecedented level of cooperation and likely streamlining of the entire update process. But they’re the kind of ideas that would make clear Android is a platform built for tomorrow as much as it is today — and that kind of pro-consumer messaging probably wouldn’t be the worst thing for Google right now.