Project Treble Gives Android Phones Four Years of Updates

image credit: Android Developers Blog

published by Chand Bellur
December 18, 2020 at 8:34 p.m.

 

  • Currently, most Android smartphones only receive operating system updates and security patches for two years.
  • Project Treble, a partnership between Google and Qualcomm, aims to support Snapdragon-powered Android devices with four years of updates.
  • New Android devices, launched in 2021, with the Snapdragon 888 processor, will benefit from Project Treble’s operating system upgrades.
  • Most new iPhones are eligible for five years of software updates before Apple stops supporting them.

Project Treble Will Deliver Four Years of Android Updates

One of the worst things about owning an Android phone is that it’s almost obsolete within two years. Sure, you can use a device that doesn’t have the latest version of Android. Since so many use older versions of Android, developers still cater to outdated smartphones.

The Android ecosystem works well for users with older versions of the popular mobile operating system. You don’t need the latest version of Android to use the best apps in Google Play. This allows users to hold on to phones longer, even if they’re running an older version of Android.

The problem is that developers shy away from using the newest Android features. Developers need to ensure backward compatibility with older devices if they opt to use contemporary Android APIs. This isn’t as much of a problem with Apple’s ecosystem, as most users update to the newest version of iOS a few months after its release.

Project Treble Splits OS Framework and Low-Level Device Software

Project Treble re-architects Android to provide two more years of operating system and security updates. By separating Android’s higher-level framework and low-level, device-specific software, Project Treble allows for independent development on each layer. As long as the vendor conforms to Generic System Interfaces (GSIs), Google can update Android frameworks, while vendors create new device-specific software only for their latest models.

Think of it this way. Imagine that your hand is the low-level software, and a glove is the higher-level Android framework. Your hand should always have five fingers, and you agree with the glove manufacturer that this will always be the case. The glove manufacturer can make all sorts of gloves that fit a five-fingered hand. As long as you don’t gain a finger, it will still fit.

Previous to Project Treble, vendors had to update their low-level, device-specific software to support new versions of Android. They had to pay software engineering teams to update low-level software for each Android update. This is a huge investment for devices sold years ago. No wonder they stopped supporting devices after a few years.

New Requirements for Vendors No Longer Retroactive

As hardware components on smartphones evolve, the software must also mature. For example, modern smartphones have multiple cameras, and Android’s hardware abstraction layer (HAL) must support them.

What happens to old phones that only have one camera? These devices currently can’t be upgraded to the newest version of Android, as it requires multiple cameras. With Project Treble, older devices don’t need to conform to new requirements. Instead, new versions of Android will gracefully handle devices with older hardware by supporting older HALs. Only new devices need to accept the newest Android hardware standards.

Project Treble also extends its no-retroactivity principle to chipmakers, such as Qualcomm. They won’t have to jam years of backward-compatibility support into their system-on-chip silicon. Instead, only the newest Qualcomm chips need to support the latest Android technology. Android will support older chipsets by allowing Qualcomm to re-use older vendor implementations.

Re-using our hand and glove analogy, imagine that a future generation of humans develops an extra finger. Glove-makers now only make six-finger gloves. They’ll still fit a five-finger hand; however, they also fit newly-evolved six-finger hands. Android is the glove, with the hand representing the smartphone manufacturer.

Project Treble Makes Android Even More Affordable

Android devices are now even more affordable compared to the iPhone due to Project Treble’s advancements. Consumers could justify the iPhone’s steeper price for some time, as Apple supported devices longer than competitors. Although Apple still supports five years of updates for newer models, if you buy last year’s model, this isn’t the case.

Re-architecting Android, separating its frameworks from the lower levels of the OS, enables better backward compatibility. With this new architecture, it’s easier to support major Android updates on older devices.

Four years of Android and security updates is adequate. Many people can manage well with an unsupported phone. These not yet obsolete devices do the basics and more, especially in the Android ecosystem, where developers cater to older devices.

Devices will also become less expensive, thanks to Project Treble. Savings in software development costs will likely result in lower-priced phones. Competition between Android device manufacturers results in lean prices and outstanding value.

Most Flagship Android Phones Will Support Project Treble

Android’s new separated architecture is currently part of version 11; however, it requires Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 processor. At the time of this writing, no smartphones use this processor. It’s too new. If you want an Android phone that gets four years of updates, you’ll have to wait until 2021.

Next year, most flagship phones from popular brands like Samsung and OnePlus will feature the new Snapdragon 888 chip. It’s not as fast as Apple’s A14 Bionic, but with much more RAM than the iPhone, these flagship Android devices are speedy, responsive, and great for gaming.

Although, in theory, other chipmakers could implement this new technology, for now, it’s exclusive to Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 devices, with more to come. If you buy a new flagship Samsung phone in 2021 with an Exynos processor, it won’t support the new architecture offering four years of OS updates. Most flagship Samsung phones sold in the United States use Qualcomm Snapdragon processors.

Will Most Consumers Care?

Project Treble is very nerdy and cool, but it’s relatively complicated to explain. From a marketing perspective, four years of software updates isn’t compelling. Perhaps consumers of flagship Android phones are a bit more astute. The average smartphone consumer just wants to send messages and use a handful of popular apps.

Don’t expect a lot of fanfare over Project Treble. Smartphone enthusiasts will celebrate four years of updates. If purposed as a selling point for flagship phones, it only weakens other devices’ value in the product lineup. If anything, it gives Qualcomm an edge over competitors with smartphone manufacturers. Although Qualcomm doesn’t have a monopoly on smartphone processors, they dominate the market. Its partnership with Google makes Snapdragon processors even more appealing to smartphone makers.

 

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