Google is pissed—or at least that’s what it sounds like when you read Bloomberg’s look into the company’s relationship with smartphone manufacturers. According to the report, Google is aggressively addressing Android’s biggest problem: fragmentation, or the fact that few of Android’s 1.4 billion users are using the latest version of the operating system. While Apple’s iOS enjoys healthy adoption rates whenever a new update for the software rolls out, it takes manufacturers a very long time to incorporate Android’s newest features—if they ever add them at all.
Bloomberg says Google will use a two-pronged approach to try to remedy the problem. The first part is practical: The company will streamline the update process to make it easier for manufacturers to keep up. The other part sounds downright coercive. Google’s apparently considering publicly shaming OEMs that lag behind the pack.
Google is using more forceful tactics. It has drawn up lists that rank top phone makers by how up-to-date their handsets are, based on security patches and operating system versions, according to people familiar with the matter. Google shared this list with Android partners earlier this year. It has discussed making it public to highlight proactive manufacturers and shame tardy vendors through omission from the list, two of the people said. The people didn’t want to be identified to maintain their relationships with Google.
That is some Game of Thrones-level scheming right there.
Google’s frustration with fragmentation is warranted. Although Android has come a very long way and is in many cases more fully featured than its Apple competition, fragmentation is at the core of what’s holding Android back.
Most Android phones don’t get the newest versions of Android until months after they’re released by Google, and it can take more than a year in some cases. For example, it took Samsung and AT&T almost 7 months to push Android Marshmallow updates to the Galaxy S6, its 2015 flagship phone. The lag stems from the fact that manufacturers have to build the new Android code into their own custom versions of the OS (e.g. Sammy’s TouchWiz). From there, carriers need to test the new updates on their networks. As Bloomberg notes, Verizon can take months to get an update through the pipeline.
The impact on users is evident in the numbers. Apple says that 84 percent of its users are on iOS 9, its latest software release. By contrast, Android Marshmallow, which has been out since October, is only running on 8 percent of Android devices.
The need to get more phones updated quicker isn’t just a question of getting the newest features to users. Sure it sucks for developers who want to build for the latest and greatest version of Android, but the more pressing problem was laid bare last year during the shitshow surrounding the Stagefright bug, which let hackers infect Android phones with a malicious text. If you were on a Nexus phone running stock Android, you received critical security updates protecting against the flaw almost instantly. But if you were on any other Android phone, you were left exposed for months.
The fragmentation issue is thorny in part because it strikes deep at what makes Android and iOS different. Both operating systems have inherent strengths and weaknesses due to differing philosophies about what their role is in how smartphones should work.
Apple’s iPhone is the epitome of centralized control. Everything runs through Cupertino, so you can be confident that your phone is secure. Over-the-air updates arrive instantly. But this tight-gripped ecosystem makes the iPhone a so-called walled-garden. It wasn’t until iOS 8 in 2014 that developers could really create third-party applications like alternate keyboards, which you’ve had on Android for years. Apple still doesn’t let developers touch certain areas of iOS. For example, Siri remains isolated, lonely, and pretty useless—though rumors suggest that might finally be changing soon.
Google’s open-source system offers greater diversity and customization to developers. Even the core OS is more powerful. The open mentality is why Google Now’s AI is infinitely more useful than Siri’s, despite the new Proactive intelligence Apple built into its AI for iOS 9.
Still, Android’s weakness is fragmentation. It makes Android insecure and unappetizing to developers who have to build apps for several flavors of Android and the 24,093 different devices currently being used, according to numbers from Open Signal.
And why would developers deal with that headache when you can build one iOS app with a few variations and still reach a huge swath of people? Better developer tools make things easier to build for Android, but if you’re launching a new app, iOS is still the more logical choice, despite Android’s dominant market share. Though developers have certainly progressed from the “iOS, then maybe Android” mentality, it’s still the second app that gets made in the cases that matter.
Google has been toying with the idea of imposing its will on Android phone makers for a while. At Google I/O, it disguised that ambition with what it calls Daydream-ready smartphones, which will have to adhere to certain specifications determined by Google in order to work with its new VR platform. There have been rumors that Google wants to design its own Android chips, much like Apple’s A-series chips. Google’s Material Design guidelines were a mostly successful effort to get the look and feel of Android more consistent across apps. Google even released the next version of Android, codenamed N, with a new beta program , which was released earlier than usual in March, in an effort to give manufacturers more time to make changes to their platforms before Android’s new N V1 release hits this fall.
There are some tricks at Android’s disposal, such as pushing for a streamlined update process that exempts critical security updates from carrier testing or making core functions standalone apps that can be updated quickly.
In the end, quashing the frag problem might be a painful process because fragmentation is a direct result of Android’s open-source idealism. To eliminate it completely, Google would need to seriously reconsider what an Android phone looks like and how they work. It could, for example, force a universal update system, which would undoubtedly cause a tidal wave of backlash from both manufacturers and the core Android community.
All Google can really do now is demand firmly that phone makers and carriers get their shit together and lead by example. And let’s hope they manage to rein it in a bit, because if they don’t, people like us, who actually buy these Android phones, will be the ones who pay the price.