Can Google ever fix its big Android upgrade cycle problem?

Here’s a stat that will be familiar – and pretty depressing – for anyone who has a stake in the Android ecosystem.

In the five months after its release, iOS 10 was installed on 79 per cent of iOS devices.

By comparison, Android Nougat was on 4.9 per cent of devices. And that was in eight months.

This will not be surprising to many readers. The Android upgrade cycle has been a problem for the industry for years.

Why problem? Well, obviously, upgrades are good for security – they fix a lot of vulnerabilities. Then there’s functionality. Google adds a lot of goodies with each new upgrade. It wants everyone to try them.

Finally, there’s accessibility. Developers want every user to have the same access to the best versions of their apps. Obviously, the newest OS gives people the best experience.

So why doesn’t Google do something about this?

It just did. Actually.

On May 12, the company revealed in a blog its new project, Google Treble. It described Treble as ‘the biggest change to the low-level system architecture of Android to date’.

The grand idea behind Treble is to make it easier for chip makers to support Android upgrades.

Previously, silicon manufacturers had to manually upgrade the code for each new version. Now, there will be a new discrete code layer called the vendor interface. This will remain constant, so the manufacturers will have less work to do.

It’s a welcome change. But don’t get too excited.

Google’s own blog spells out very clearly that the silicon manufacturers are only one of three groups in the Android upgrade process. The others, handset makers and operators, are not affected by Treble.

And Google’s challenge is that, even if they were, it wouldn’t make much difference.

This is because OEMs and operators don’t have the incentive to tackle the upgrade problem.

If you think about it, Google’s business model requires the biggest achievable audience. It’s a machine learning business, so it needs as many people as possible to use its maps, its email and its search engine.

When it improves these products with an Android upgrade, the data Google collects gets even better.

But Samsung, LG, Sony have a different agenda. They want you to buy another $500 handset in a year, rather than improve the one you already have. Your operator feels the same way.

This is Google’s big challenge.

Of course, there are some handset owners who can and will upgrade to the newest Android versions very easily. They are the men and women who own Pixels and Nexuses.

Google makes these phones itself to showcase Android’s best features. So, you can be sure that when Android O hits later this year, these devices will be primed and ready to upgrade.

But, of course, the mere existence of these phone models is a direct challenge to Samsung et al. These companies are usually Google’s allies and partners. But when it comes to Pixel/Nexus, they are competitors.

It’s all very complicated. And it suggests that it take more than Treble to solve the upgrade puzzle.