While there are very few frequent readers of my blog, I think this is a big step towards gaining some credibility in tech predictions. In my previous post, I talked about smartphones' future and the importance of software maximizing hardware performance. Simultaneously, the lifecycle of a flagship smartphone cannot be just 2 years of upgrades and then quarterly security updates. The per year cost of such a device is very high. Now Google and Qualcomm have formed a partnership that ensures an extended duration of Android smartphone updates, both in major build numbers and security updates. This is a direct consequence of improvements in Project Treble. Project Treble, introduced with Android Oreo, is a re-architecture of the update development and deployment cycle for Android. Recent tweaks on Treble will allow for four years of Android updates on Qualcomm-powered devices from 2021 and on, starting with the Snapdragon 888 SoC.
The basic idea behind Project Treble is the separation of software layers on Android devices. Let's see a high-level illustration of how Project Treble looks in terms of software layers. You would expect to see this, but it was not present in Android before Project Treble was introduced.
What is new here is the decoupling of the low-level code and the manufacturer-modified main operating system code. This looks like a layer of abstraction will be added between the low-level code close to the SoC and the rest of the operating system code. That will allow manufacturers to work independently on the operating system. In the past, OEMs would rely on SoC manufacturers, Qualcomm, in this case, to support a new major build number. This was a direct consequence of a very problematic Android development architecture.
The reason for the complexity of the pre-Treble process is beyond the scope of this article. But Treble seems to have introduced a quite important fix that has matured significantly to allow longer Android update support.
No-retroactivity design principle from 2021 and on
The most interesting part here is the no-retroactivity design principle that the 2021 Qualcomm SoC will support. I don't understand what is unique in Snapdragon 888, that is missing from Snapdragon 865 and 865+. I guess we will find out eventually but I think this is quite disappointing for some Snapdragon 865+ users.
Nevertheless, smartphone manufacturers can work independently of the SoC manufacturer to support Android upgrades. At the same time the introduction of this vendor interface probably provides a much simpler API for OEM vendors. According to Qualcomm we have reached a point where Treble allows faster Android updates with less resources for OEMs.
Tweaks will go live for 2021 Qualcomm-powered devices
These tweaks to Project Treble will go live for Android 11 and later devices running the new Qualcomm SoCs. The extended Android update cycle will be supported, starting with Snapdragon 888 devices. “We’re also reusing the same OS framework software across multiple Qualcomm chipsets,” Google states.
“This dramatically lowers the number of OS framework and vendor implementation combinations that Qualcomm has to support across their mobile platforms and results in lowered engineering, development, and deployment costs.”
The specifics of this new architecture are definitely interesting.
Four years of Android updates: Too good to be true?
The extended upgrade and security update cycle offered by Google and Qualcomm means that four major Android versions and four years of security updates will be supported on an SoC level.
However, this extension needs to be supported by Android OEMs too. There are several limitations there, though. For instance, in the case of Samsung, the Galaxy S21 lineup will ship with two SoC variants once again, an Exynos and a Snapdragon one. Providing four years of updates for just the Snapdragon variant will further alienate all the Samsung buyers already complaining about the Exynos performance. So we need to wait and see whether other SoCs will support this change. But also what each OEM will decide to provide in terms of guaranteed Android updates.
Hopefully, Android will leap forward in terms of performance and efficiency in the next two years, which will help this extended support be meaningful. Finally, replaceable batteries need to come back, don't they?