Tech Talk: Android Fragmentation Post Nougat

This week Google released the latest version of Android and the update has started appearing on a number of Nexus devices. We've covered the improvements to Android 7.0 Nougat elsewhere, but to summarize, Google's latest version of Android includes improvements to battery management, notifications, data management, and includes the ability to run two applications side by side on the one screen. These changes will smooth and polish Android still further and are absolutely welcome, even if they aren't as ground shaking as previous full point updates. Indeed, many of Android's changes over the last few iterations have been mostly under the skin, plus Google has worked on the Android infrastructure: for Android 7.0 Nougat, one of the improvements is what Google is calling "seamless updates." This is a technology borrowed from the Chrome OS platform used on Chromebooks. It is designed to be less invasive when it comes to system updates and critical security patches: these can download onto a different partition on the device silently in the background and once ready, let the user know via a notification.

As with any platform update, we start to see criticism of Android in the technology press. The word we see is "fragmentation," that is, how many of the Android-powered devices in active service today are running many different versions of the platform. To put this into perspective, around one sixth of devices that have recently visited the Google Play Store are running Android Jelly Bean, version 4.1, 4.2 or 4.3 of Android. 29% are running Android 4.4 KitKat, 35% are running Android Lollipop (either version 5.0 or 5.1) and 15% are running Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which is approaching one year old. Android 4.4 KitKat was released in late 2013 and is approaching its third birthday. The Google Nexus 5, the first device to ship with Android 4.4 KitKat, will not be (officially) receiving Android 7.0 Nougat. This is fragmentation: devices that are no longer supported by their manufacturer and haven't seen a software update in years still being used as an active device. Around half of devices in circulation are running a version of Android that is three years or older.

Google has and is putting the framework in place to encourage device manufacturers to keep handsets up to date. Manufacturers must use a reasonably current build of Android when releasing a new device into the market if they are to be able to include a number of Google's services, such as the Google Play Store. This has helped stop devices launching with a two year old version of Android. And whilst Android is described as an open source platform, Google has also insisted that manufacturers do not change certain parts of the software if they are to include these same Google Services, such as Marshmallow's battery management functions of Doze and App Standby.

Last year following the Stagefright critical vulnerability, Google announced that it would be releasing monthly critical security patches to the Android platform. This means that the Android code is updated and hardened against known security threats but beyond the Nexus devices, it's up to the manufacturers to support this scheme. When a new patch is released, the manufacturer software engineers need to incorporate the changes into the Android platform and of course their changes to the interface. When updates are received monthly, this greatly increases the work required - and keeping devices up to date with the latest security patch means spending money on something with (currently) minimal return. Most customers aren't interested in a device running up to date software because they've no reason to be.

Because of this, there are only a small number of device manufacturers committed to delivering critical vulnerability patches on a month by month basis and these are BlackBerry, Google (Nexus), LG, and Samsung. Yes; I know that Google do not yet build a smartphone and that Nexus devices are built by a manufacturer, but these devices are supported for two years after release. BlackBerry has two Android devices in the market and both are receiving their security patches in a timely fashion (subject to any carrier testing). LG and Samsung update a number of their high end devices, while other OEMs are not as quick about pushing out these patches.

Does this really matter? Perhaps not until the broader Android platform is infected with a blasterworm type of infection, which we saw with the Microsoft Windows platform a number of years ago. There have been scares before: the quadrooter vulnerabilities and Stagefright have the promise that around a billion devices are vulnerable. Fortunately and to date, neither of these exploits have been used to inject malware into millions of devices and systematically start stealing money from online banking apps or use data allowances to run a denial-of-service attack. Saying that it could happen doesn't mean that it will, but what if it does? Will customers suddenly take an interest in keeping devices up to date, or will Google and Android be blamed for releasing faulty software that allowed hackers to take control?

Yes the Android platform is fragmented. This is one of the reasons why Android has been so flexible: manufacturers can tailor the software to depending on the device it will be used in. However, the Android market in 2016 is very different from 2011. In developed countries, the majority of customers are on their second or third smartphone. Sales have plateaued and most manufacturers do not make money from their smartphone sales: Apple and Samsung have the market wrapped up, everybody else has to pick up the remaining scraps. It seems that software engineering teams simply do not have the resources necessary to keep up with Google's rate of Android development. Google is making structural changes in how the software can be updated: seamless updating is the first stage. It's still a long way off from having a system similar to Microsoft Windows Update, whereby updates are rolled out to the platform regardless of the manufacturer. Perhaps when seamless updates are adopted by manufacturers, a major change in how devices are updated will be present. This won't stop customers from using old devices nor will it shorten the delays customers will experience in receiving the update to Android 7.0 Nougat, but it will help moving forwards.

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About the Author

David Steele

Senior Staff Writer
I grew up with 8-bit computers and moved into PDAs in my professional life, using a number of devices from early Windows CE clamshells and later. Today, my main devices are a Nexus 5X, a Sony Xperia Z Tablet and a coffee cup.