How Google's Project Treble Will Future-Proof Your Phone

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Google’s annual developer conference wrapped last week, and while there was some incredible AI technology on display, I feel the the most tangible announcement may have been missed. It was an announcement that really began at last year’s I/O, but is only now starting to make an impact; Google’s Project Treble.

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When Google announced the beta of their latest mobile operating system — so far only known as Android P — we were told the preview would be made available on the company’s own Pixel devices, as well as seven other third party Android phones, from Oppo, Essential, Sony, and Nokia, amongst others. How could Google push its software update to third party devices? Project Treble.

To oversimplify things, Project Treble is a complete rewrite of the Android platform, which separates the common Android operating system from hardware specific firmware.

The potential for this is huge and could finally address a major concern with Android: a lack of security and software upgrades to phones that don’t bear Google’s Pixel or Nexus branding. While iPhones the world over receive software and security updates the day they’re made available, Android users can wait months for software updates, depending on the whims of their carriers or the attention span of their device manufacturers. Often these software updates seem to stop just a year or two into an Android device’s lifespan. Treble is Google’s way of addressing this.

In theory, Sony for example could write all the code specific to their handsets, to power their unique camera system or biometric security, as one siloed part of the operating system. That software could then be locked, with the latest Android software applied on top. When Google updates Android, the update could be made available day one, because none of the underlying hardware instructions have changed.

Google has toyed with this forced upgrade path for a few years now, breaking out core features of their operating system into mandatory Google Services updates available via the Play Store. It has helped to bring new features to otherwise stagnant hardware but there’s only so much Google can push through as a service update.

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Project Treble was baked into last year’s Android release, named Oreo, which is only running on five percent of all Android devices today, just to highlight the issue Treble is meant to solve. But thanks to Treble, those few phones running Oreo are ready to upgrade to P immediately, which is why we’re first seeing its effects with the P beta, and we’ll hopefully continue to see day one updates for

More interesting for myself and other phone geeks, this potentially opens up the best Android hardware to a “pure, vanilla” Android experience. That is, an Android without any of the software customisation that manufacturers insist on adding, to give their handsets a unique selling point.

Android phone makers like HTC and Samsung have flirted with vanilla Android, or “Google Play Editions” of their hardware, but this idea never stuck, as the need to differentiate for marketing purposes outweighed the benefits vanilla Android might bring. Nokia and Motorola bank on the geek-cred appeal of vanilla Android to sell their handsets, but their devices are mid range phones. I want pure Android on the best hardware from LG, Sony and Samsung.

With Treble, we shouldn’t need an official vanilla Android edition of our favourite handsets, we can just wait for the incredible Android open source community to make a version available for the hardware we want, knowing it should be easier to install and will continue to be upgraded long after the handset maker has moved on.

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This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald's home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.


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