Google, Qualcomm partner, brings 4 operating system Android updates for new chipsets

Over three years ago, Google announced Project Treble, a major new development from Android designed to speed up software updates. While the architecture introduced by Project Treble has helped OEMs speed up the delivery of critical Android operating system updates and monthly security patches, it has adversely affected SoC vendors like Qualcomm. In fact, Treble has increased the complexity, and therefore the development costs, associated with supporting Android operating system updates for a given chipset. That has limited the length of support Qualcomm can provide for its SoCs, but that will soon change. All Snapdragon SoCs that start with Android 11 or higher – from Snapdragon 888, Qualcomm supports 3 version updates for Android operating systems (start version + 3-letter upgrades) and 4 years of security updates. That’s an extra year than they had previously earmarked for their flagship 800-series chipsets.

Today’s announcement is significant, but it cannot be understood without the background of what Google tried with Project Treble 3 years ago.

Treble has a split between the Android operating system framework (including all of the UI code, APIs, and system processes apps interact with) and low-level device-specific software (including the underlying Linux kernel and hardware abstraction layers or HALs). The device-specific low-level software communicates with the Android operating system framework via a well-defined, stable manufacturer interface. Each Android operating system version guarantees backward compatibility with the manufacturer’s implementation, which Google ensures by using the Vendor Test Suite (VTS), a standardized compliance test suite. This means that, for example, the Android 11 operating system framework is backwards compatible with the manufacturer implementation developed for Android 10. In fact, for each new version of Android, Google publishes Generic System Images (GSIs), source-based system images that are created backwards – Compatible with the last 3 versions of manufacturer implementations. When an OEM creates a new Android device, they can modify the Android operating system framework to introduce new proprietary functions and APIs. However, he must ensure that the manufacturer’s implementation of the device is compatible with the GSI.

Thanks to the Treble architecture, the same Android OS framework code can be reused for different manufacturer implementations. This is the “Generic” in the generic system image. Source: Google.

In this way, Treble primarily reduces fragmentation and speeds up the delivery of new operating system updates. When coupling the Android operating system framework (open source and provided by Google) and the device-specific low-level software (which) causes much less breakage, it is often provided as a closed source and provided under contracts with SoC providers), thanks to the stable provider interface. Ideally, this means OEMs can spend less time troubleshooting hardware issues and more time porting their system-level changes in addition to the latest version of the Android operating system. Since the introduction of Treble, Google has indicated that OEMs have rolled out the latest version of the Android operating system much faster than before. “At the time of Android 11 launch, there were 667 million active users on Android 10, 82% of whom got their Android 10 build via an over the air (OTA) update,” Google said.

Statistics on the adoption of Android 11 operating systems

Takeover of Android 9 Pie against Android 10 against Android 11. Source: Google.

As each new version of Android supports more hardware features (the operating system has to support new features to keep up with the rapid advances in the cellular industry), Google needs to update the vendor interface for this version. The company is therefore defining new HAL requirements and prescribing new Linux kernel versions, which only require devices Start with the new version of the Android operating system to actually support these manufacturer-affected changes. For example, if Google changes Android’s camera HAL to support multiple rear view camera sensors, only new devices that start with the new version of Android will need to support this updated HAL, while older devices that are updated to the new version will Their implementation from older manufacturers can reuse HAL requirement without this new camera. This reduces the cost and complexity – from an OEM perspective – when moving a new Android operating system version to an older device. The problem, however, is that this approach adds additional complexity for SoC vendors like Qualcomm, MediaTek, and others.

Because of this design principle, Qualcomm and other SoC vendors must support multiple combinations of Android OS framework software and vendor implementations. A SoC vendor that supports 3 generations of Android operating system versions for a given chipset must support 6 combinations of operating system framework software and manufacturer implementations. This is because, while OEMs can avoid implementing an older vendor implementation to bypass new requirements for the HAL and Linux kernel version, SoC vendors must ensure that their vendor implementations support both the old and new requirements. You cannot choose. Multiply that by the dozen of chipsets a SoC vendor needs to support, and you can see how Treble actually added complexity for them.

For this reason, Qualcomm and other SoC vendors generally only offer a maximum of 2 operating system letter upgrades and 3 year security updates for a given chipset. While I’m not familiar with the exact cost, my guess is that it’s not economically feasible for SoC vendors like Qualcomm to support chipsets for much longer. We’ve seen Qualcomm and other SoC vendors sometimes offer longer support, but that depends on demand from OEMs to make it economical. If there is no such demand, OEMs have to bear the brunt of the development costs of introducing a new version of Android – and it is no easy task. Thanks to the joint efforts of Google and Qualcomm, the latter will now support 4 versions of the Android operating system and 4 years of security updates for select Snapdragon chipsets, starting with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888.

To make this possible, Google has extended Project Treble’s “no retroactivity principle” to devices as well as SoCs. This means that new requirements for the HAL and Linux kernel version for SoCs are not retroactive. For example, a SoC that boots with Android 11 (like the Snapdragon 888) can reuse the same manufacturer implementation to support Android 12 through Android 14. SoC vendors can develop a single Board Support Package (BSP) for a specific chipset and distribute it to OEMs instead of managing multiple versions of the BSP that have to be updated with each new Android version. This significantly reduces the development cost of supporting Android on a given chipset and gives SoC vendors like Qualcomm the ability to support their chipsets for longer.

Google is also working with Qualcomm to ensure that the latter reuses the same operating system framework software across multiple Qualcomm chipsets, further reducing the number of operating system framework and vendor implementation combinations that Qualcomm supports. SoC providers are currently modifying the AOSP framework code and creating their own versions of generic system images. For example, Qualcomms is called QSSI, while MediaTeks is called MSSI. These SoC-specific system images are now guaranteed to be compatible with multiple chipsets and with older manufacturer software, similar to Google’s AOSP GSI.

A hypothetical software support schedule for a SoC vendor that has implemented the new principles of non-retroaction. Source: Google.

Devices with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 are expected to hit the market very soon, starting with the Xiaomi Mi 11 and Samsung Galaxy S21 series. We hope the announcement from Google and Qualcomm means that all Snapdragon 888 devices will receive Android operating system and security patch updates for 3 years. However, there is no guarantee that it will. OEMs still have to invest significant sums of money to develop and sell new operating system versions. However, it is much more likely that Qualcomm itself supports 4 versions of Android operating system. We hope that one or more OEMs will take advantage of today’s announcement to announce expanded software support for their future flagship phones with Snapdragon 888. Most OEMs currently only offer 2 years of Android updates, while Samsung and Google promise 3 years. This is still far too short compared to Apple and was rightly called many times and will continue to be called until the gap is shortened.

As with the other SoC providers, Google is in talks with them to apply this new principle of non-retroactive effect so that they too can offer expanded software support for their chipsets. We don’t have any endorsement from MediaTek or any other SoC vendor, but we see no reason why they wouldn’t go along with this idea – at least not for new chipsets. According to Google, they expect that mostly only newly introduced SoCs will benefit from these changes. So, based on today’s announcement, don’t expect any of your current devices to receive expanded software support.

This article was updated on 12/16/2020 at 1:50 PM CET to change “Devices” in the title to “Chipsets” to better reflect where the changes will take effect. Additional information has been added to the article with the kind permission of Google.

This article was updated at 2:10 p.m. ET to take into account that Google and Qualcomm are promising support for 4 Android OS versions – i.e. the launch version plus 3 years of Android OS updates – instead of 4 years of OS updates. However, Qualcomm promises to provide 4 years of security updates.