Reality Check – Don’t Expect Project Treble on Your Android O Upgraded Phone

Friday for the Android faithful was a fun day.  Ahead of Google I/O, which starts this week, the company announced Project Treble, a modularized change to Android that will make it far easier for Google themselves to upgrade the core OS while leaving the manufactures and carriers to upgrade their bits on your phone.  It has a huge amount of promise and would go a long way in sorting out one of Android’s biggest problems – timely updates.

Timely updates, particularly security updates, has always been a challenge.  Manufactures are slow (and don’t really have an incentive to keep things upgraded) and carriers just add to the pain. It is a key reason I have chosen Google Nexus and Pixel products as my main drivers.  I know I will get timely updates.   Treble would leave the base level OS upgrades to Google who could upgrade your devices directly for things like security patches without having to involve the manufactures or carriers.

Unfortunately, I have to rain on everyone’s parade a bit.  Treble is coming for Android O and this week at I/O we are likely going to hear a lot more about it.  But don’t expect it to hit your current phone.  Even if you have a Google Pixel, don’t expect it.  Why?  Two Words:  System Partition.

In order for Project Treble to work, there has to be a stand alone, contained system partition for Android itself.  This is fundamentally very different to how Android works today and why it is so painful to upgrade things (and why it takes time).  Treble would only impact this new system partition, where core Android lives.  Therein lies the problem.  Messing with system partitions is not something that is to be taken lightly.  It is a big efforts and one where a litany of things can go wrong.  A wrong step in the code and you could brick thousands of devices in a single OTA update.  That means dead phones but also lost photos and files.

If things really went wrong, manufactures could end up with devices that are non-recoverable.

The risk is simply too high and it will probably be late 2017 or even 2018 before we see new devices with this system partition.

There is, of course, reasons to be hopeful.  Manufactures like Samsung and Huawei have dedicated teams that focus only on Android updates.  They could, for their flagship devices, bring Treble support.  Likewise, Google on the Pixel and Pixel XL could do the same.  It is probably more likely that Google would do it than anyone given they have eliminated the manufacture in the equation.  But even for Google, it’s risky.

My point here is don’t buy a Samsung Galaxy S8 or a Google Pixel knowing it will get this new benefit of Android O.  It is entirely likely that it won’t.  Yes it’s frustrating but we are talking about massive, system level changes and how Android principally works.  It may simply be too risky for current devices.

Thoughts?  Leave a comment and tell me what you think.

For more information on Project Treble, check out the Android Developer blog post about it.