back to article The real battle of Android's future – who controls the updates

Nothing in the new version of Android O, revealed for the first time at Google's annual developer conference yesterday, is as significant as the changes to the way Google releases code to phone makers. Put simply, Google has a problem. Seven months after the first Nougat phone shipped in volume, 92.8 per cent of the installed …

I would not normally be defending Microsoft, but they managed (admittedly not perfectly) to update their OS despite it running on an enormous variety of hardware.

Why can't Google just act like they did?

I don't know, maybe Asus, Dell, HP, etc. actually blocked some updates behind the scenes, but my impression of what was going on in the days I was using XP was that MS released the updates when necessary and the hardware manufacturers just had to cope with it.

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Microsoft Update process

Has been a cause of much pain and anguish to millions of people over the years and still does.

I hardly think that it is a benchmark for anyone to be proud of.

I watched a Server 2012 system sit there for 4 hours 'preparing to install updates' recently. Only 4 updates.

Halted the process, rebooted and did the same thing in two steps 2 updates then the other 2. Worked perfectly.

Android updates have a different problem. For many users both the handset maker and carrier need to work together and even then the user might not download and install the updates.

It seems that many handset makers don't give a toss about updates. There are countless posts on the internet where new phones stop receiving updates after only a few months yet those makers don't seem to suffer at the hands of the press or have their stock price drop. Yet if this was Apple we were talking about then it would be front page news. (even Apple bork things from time to time but their overall approach is light years ahead of Android)

Google is right to focus on this area. I expect that Google are frustrated by the inability of the updates they release from getting to the end users. As for rolling out new versions of Android to users????? Are you having a larf? Handset makers care even less about new versions than they do about patches.

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Anonymous Coward

Maybe not so much blocked but I have an inherited top of the line Dell PC that was on Vista. Dell would not support any later operating systems on it so the custom Dell drivers were never made available. It wasn't even that difficult as an enthusiast managed to extract the relevant drivers, get them to work on Windows 7 and collect some other drivers off the various 3rd parties.

Microsoft have also abandoned old phone hardware like anyone else. WIndows mobile 6 -> Phone 7 -> 8 -> 10? how much success was there for most people trying that? I can't be bothered to look for the various facts on this or the exact name of Window Phone/Mobile etc but there were plenty of unsupported devices and non-upgrade paths.

They were also very prescriptive with the hardware vendors for phones who couldn't do anything like the range of features that Android manufacturers can. They couldn't even change much (anything?) about the OS.

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Other problem with a phone OS update

Where do you store it if there is no SD Card slot and the Flash memory is full?

Some cheaper phones and tablets only have about 1/3rd storage free when there are NO user files!

The only solution would be a small separate bootloader OS that can erase all of existing OS and update via USB from either PC (slave mode) or external USB reader (USB2Go host mode). A software stack / USB simulation of JTAG. Some embedded systems do work this way. Most phones, TVs, Setboxes, Tablets etc today store a full copy of new OS on board and then overwrite the old copy.

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"update their OS despite it running on an enormous variety of hardware."

I guess that "PC compatible" now qualifies as a given value of 'variety'

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Anonymous Coward

@S4qFBxkFFg - Google can't pull a Microsoft on handset makers (yet)

Microsoft enslaved the hardware makers using the cost of Windows licensing. This is why with the exception Dell, no other OEM dared to even look at Linux or other alternative OS.

Google on the other hand, conquered their market share by offering Android for free and even encouraging handset makers to customize it (at least in the beginning). Google didn't care about customization as long as traffic was driven to their servers and services. Ideally they should come up with a proprietary version of Android with a strong license that would shackle the handset manufacturers. Something tells me this will be met with a strong opposition and handset manufacturers could be tempted to stay with existing versions of Android long enough to cause Google some serious headache. Oh, and if Google tries to cut access to its services for the rebel handset manufacturers, then Microsoft might step in to aggravate it.

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Re: Microsoft Update process

The problem with android is NOT just google, but all the other apps that come with the phone, put on by the various sellers.... :(

A lot of 'clueless' users bought the phone years ago, and do not know why it is slowing down, running out of battery quickly, etc...

The main reason is that google is STILL blatantly downloading updates for many, many apps (without even bothering to check whether they apply to the old version of OS) that have NEVER been used or looked at due to many not even knowing of their existence, or how to manage them!!

This is the main reason the average buyer just buys a new phone,

* * I F * * they can afford it, or their contract will allow...

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Re: @S4qFBxkFFg - Google can't pull a Microsoft on handset makers (yet)

Google on the other hand, conquered their market share by offering Android for free and even encouraging handset makers to customize it (at least in the beginning).

Android, or at least any meaningful version of it, is not free. You need the Google Play Services binary, and that comes with strings attached. It's one of the reasons they're being investigated by the EU.

Microsoft made OS updates work on Windows Mobile by defining a minimum hardware standards. It was largely successful in that regard.

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The Android shipped on any phone is necessarily customised by the device maker to include the necessary hardware drivers. MS got lucky in the way PC market opened up through ISA so that the OS was as likely to be installed by the user as by a vendor.

However, recent noises from MS about not providing updates of Windows 7 for newer chips and some of the device signing foreshadow future changes. And as for Windows 10 updates: how well are they working for you? Reversing your default settings re. preferred applications and telemetry?

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Microsoft didn't get "lucky". Microsoft used unethical and illegal business practices to do that.

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ACZ

Physician, heal thyself

So does this mean that Google will support devices for longer? Will this mean that they end-of-life devices after *more* than 3 years?

https://www.theregister.co.uk/2017/05/01/google_eol_for_nexus_phones/

I know it's been said (many) times before, but this is something that Apple have got right. If this means that Android devices are supported longer then that would be great.

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Anonymous Coward

@ACZ - Re: Physician, heal thyself

There's no comparison. Apple controls both the hardware and the software of its platforms. Google might be tempted to do it too but Microsoft attempt at it and subsequent failure is a major deterrent.

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Google can't act the way Microsoft does due to the architectural differences. Windows doesn't normally run on Systems-on-a-Chip that have black-boxed internal workings protected by patents and NDAs and whose drivers are ONLY provided in binary blobs (for the same reasons) that are ONLY certified to work with whatever version of Android was available at launch. For phone manufacturers, they're DISincentivized to update their devices since their ONLY revenue stream 9 times out of 10 is selling new devices. Only the threat to not buy from them AT ALL is what makes some of them keep phones updated to some extent.

And BTW, since Apple has full control over its whole ecosystem (hardware AND software), it doesn't have this problem. It can pick and choose as the circumstances dictate.

Since manufacturers are actually disincentivized from keeping devices up to date, Google has to find a way around them, say by allowing phone OS's to be updateable IN SPITE of their recalcitrance.

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but Microsoft managed to update its (limited) phones, even if not running on Nokia hardware.

As for black boxed and patented hardware, I promise you there is far more in the "computing" world than phones.

How is the AMD processor, with your nVidia card, running on an Asus MB, with Crucial RAM with a Kingston SSD, using a Broadcom WiFi controller, overriding the Intel NIC connected to the ......

There is no reason that the OS can't be more separated from the hardware and a simple "Hardware Check" before update would suffice.

It wouldn't be that hard if the manufacturers supplied the drivers and Google did the OS.

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Windows on ARM

Microsoft actually did quite a lot of groundwork in this area a few years ago to support Windows RT across multiple SoC vendors. I managed to locate a Sinofsky-era essay on the subject - search for "Booting the core of Windows"

In essence it brings the x86 model to ARM - providing the necessary UEFI and ACPI interfaces that the OS can use to bootstrap itself. It would still need drivers of course.

It will be interesting to see how much of this survives in the upcoming Snapdragon 835 based Windows 10 devices.

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Does the phrase ACPI ring a bell? The point is, PC architecture is based on enumerated buses because they wanted a unified front end. When a PC boots, it queries the common points via ACPI that tell it what's where. And BTW, you know what's one reason why support for modern graphics cards in Linux is hit or miss? Because AMD and nVidia will ONLY provide their cutting-edge drivers as blobs, fearing Giving Information To The Enemy.

Phones don't have that same commonality. Instead, everything's memory-mapped and not by any common standard. Unlike in the PC world, that settled on the peace treaty and accepted the open standard of a common bus, ARM SoC makers are competing cutthroat for each other's business which relies on complete control. That's why you can't do something like a Linux Live CD that can work in most PC configurations out of the box. No, each image you build for an ARM system only works with that specific design.

"It wouldn't be that hard if the manufacturers supplied the drivers and Google did the OS."

That's part of the problem. Those drivers to them are trade secrets, potential Information For The Enemy, which is why they're ONLY provided as blobs.

PS. To add to what Malcolm said, Microsoft was actually closer to Apple than it was to Google in terms of hardware control. They dictated terms and laid down minimum hardware specifications, thus allowing them more control over the environment.

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As for black boxed and patented hardware, I promise you there is far more in the "computing" world than phones.

Perhaps but its the way things are black-boxed which makes a difference. In the PC world most things come as pre-installed or provided apps and drivers, or overlay onto what the default behaviour was. For phones it seems that suppliers dig much further down, tweaking the default software or replacing it with their own. Changing from below rather than adding on top.

There's nothing wrong with that per se. But it does make it harder to ensure it all still works with a new release, and it is predictable that some would prefer to forget all that and just make it work for new models.

I would probably do the same; make it work for the new first, then consider going back to fix for the old, and probably disinclined to do that when there's that new to sell.

What Google seems to be proposing is more a 'plug-in' solution as a way to separate the core from mods which should help improve things.

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Anonymous Coward

@Charles9 - Correction

|Hardware| manufacturers are actually disincentivized (as you call it) from keeping |software| up to date.

Heck, even software vendors would like you to buy the latest version instead of supporting the old one.

And also don't forget software is not the strongest skill of hardware manufacturers, just look at the dismal security of IoT stuff.

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@Charles 9

Maybe, then, they need to be forced to provide a software version of ACPI. Or, at least, a common set of low level routines. I don't know what's the right level: provide routines to alter the state of the I2C bus directly, or routines to read and write whole bytes, or routines to read and write chunks of data.

But it doesn't seem beyond the wit of Google to create a reasonable abstraction layer. We would could call it the Android basic input/output system. The problem is political, not technical.

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Re: @Charles 9

Work on using ARM processors in servers is actually providing inroads into a common enumerated bus for ARM-based systems (look up SBSA or Server Base System Architecture).

As for trying to force cutthroat SoC manufacturers to comply, it'd be easier for Google to do what Apple did and take out their own ARM license and roll their own silicon. The likes of Qualcomm, Rockchip, and Mediatek get enough business from other sources that, if push came to shove, they could simply walk away.

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No Skins please.

If the manufacturers would simply stop adding their "improvements" then there would be no problem.

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Re: No Skins please.

They want to differentiate themselves. Why would Samsung willingly give up their branding and experience to offer exactly what everyone else does?

The "I want unskinned Android" crowd is about the same percentage as the "I want to use alternate app stores" crowd on iOS - a few percent of the userbase at best.

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Re: No Skins please.

"Why would Samsung willingly give up their branding and experience to offer exactly what everyone else does?"

Wow. You mean they'd then have to compete on actual FEATURES, like a decent size replaceable battery, removable SD card, nice camera, waterproofness, etc instead of whether their icons are flat-colored or not?

I've never seen a skin add value. It's usually clunkier and uglier, with more bugs. Thus, I have never bought a Samsung phone.

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Re: No Skins please.

"You mean they'd then have to compete on actual FEATURES."

Except the Feature War's pretty much hit a stalemate. As much as you like the features you've mentioned, you've been outvoted by the bling-lovers who will outpay you for less features, meaning you're out of luck. Anyway, all the manufacturers have pretty much hit the peak of what they can pack into their phones while keeping them slim (remember, in the REAL phone world, slim sells). You've seen one phone, you've pretty much seen them all, so the war moves to the software front. Sad, but true.

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Re: No Skins please.

Who knows how big the I want vanilla android crowd is .. because it is hard to get if you want other features on a phone (e.g. removable battery, SD card etc) .. I tried a Nexus back in the day but was irked by no sd, so since then generally get phones that are as near stock as possible (so e.g. tend to avoid Sammies) but have features I want

I'm sure very few people want / appreciate all the (non removable unless you root) bloat apps vendors chuck on a phone and would sooner have the extra storage space instead.

What Google ought to do is make a way to get rid of junk (this includes installed Google apps that are never used) without rooting your phone.

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Re: No Skins please.

"Who knows how big the I want vanilla android crowd is .. because it is hard to get if you want other features on a phone (e.g. removable battery, SD card etc) ."

Econ 101 tells me that if there is no supply, then odds are the demand isn't there. Otherwise, someone would jump on the chance to steal a march on the big boys.

"I'm sure very few people want / appreciate all the (non removable unless you root) bloat apps vendors chuck on a phone and would sooner have the extra storage space instead."

Wanna bet? Credits to milos they don't even notice. The rest? They actually USE them! Remember, if there were real demand, they would've filled it before someone else did. Yet what are the best-selling phones on the market?

"What Google ought to do is make a way to get rid of junk (this includes installed Google apps that are never used) without rooting your phone."

They'd instantly lose manufacturer support (because guess what was one condition of using Android), leaving Google with no way to compete with Apple. The market would've become a one-horse stable without Google's aggressive tactics.

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Re: No Skins please.

> Econ 101 tells me that if there is no supply, then odds are the demand isn't there.

Or that the supply side is an effective monopoly. Or the distribution side is an effective monopoly.

With most phones sold via carriers, it's probably both of those. Manufacturers spec their product not for the end user but for the carrier, in practice.

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Re: No Skins please.

There's more than one manufacturer, so there's no real supply monopoly, and since the manufacturers come from different countries (Taiwan, South Korea, etc.) with different economic incentives, they're unlikely to act in a cartel.

As for the carriers, there has always been a market for carrier-free phones, particularly in regions where common settled frequencies have been established like LTE Band III, allowing for easier carrier-jumping. Areas with more prepaid rather than postpaid carriers tend to encourage carrier-jumping and thus carrier-free phones. Even in America that trend is growing with increasing numbers of "Bring Your Own Smartphone" MVNO carriers. Most of the headliners for the past ten years or so have been offered carrier-free in some form, plus there was the iPhone which carriers were SO desperate to carry that they let Apple dictate terms for a while. So I doubt there's a real monopoly on the distribution end, either.

No, I think the real demand is strictly with the customers. Thin is in, and simplicity sells, thus closed-in slim phones win out over thicker and easier-to-grip phones with removable battery packs and expansion slots.

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As usual,a problem that Google were warned about by hardware makers and the public TEN+ years ago is still not fixed,who would believe it..

Android used to be tiny,sub 500mb,now it's 6 gb,what is all that extra code doing that earlier versions didn't,your trying to tell me that lte modems or cameras have driver packs of a gb each !!

Android is no more secure now than.it was years ago,in fact it still has some gaping holes that are 12 years old,and won't be fixed until android dies off is totally re-writen from the bottom up..

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A LineageOS firmware for Android 7.1 weighs in about 350MB so no, it's not 6GB. It doesn't include Google Apps but you can download a 50GB nano GApps package.

I expect some firmware updates are larger depending on how much crapware they contain or other superfluous stuff like additional image resources, languages, videos etc.

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Anonymous Coward

Google don't even Support Nexus

Google are so full of BS. They don't even support their own Nexus devices as pointed out by ACZ. I have a Nexus 4 and it never got Marshmallow never mind Nougat (officially). The hardware is more than capable and I am running Nitrogen ROM giving me the very latest 7.x (even got it before the Pixel Phone). But this also has may issues as I have had to root and many apps relying on Widevine won't work. Have yet to look a Magisk or un-rooting, but it just makes it difficult.

If unpaid devs (thanks devs) on XDA can make the Nougat ROM why can't Google do it officially?

Google need to shut up about manufacturers not updating when they themselves do not update.

However, this is all just a con to make people have to buy new phones and this is BS. All capable older devices should be supported by Google AND the manufacturers.

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Re: Google don't even Support Nexus

It might make it easier for them to support Nexus, if a phone is a phone is a phone, then the updates should be more universal. This /should/ apply to Nexus and other phones equally.

If this is the case, then "a proprietary Android." or not, I'll be happy to have an OS on my phone that doesn't become obselete before the hardware.

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Re: Google don't even Support Nexus

You can have a proprietary OS that gets updates for 4-6 years already. If you are willing to turn Android into iOS in exchange for security, why not just buy an iPhone?

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Re: Google don't even Support Nexus

Or a Windows phone. Works for me on my Lumia 640 XL Dual SIM. Latest Windows 10 release and only one app has failed, but Barclays are working on it. Started as Windows 8 three years ago.

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borrowed from Apple, who made a great fuss about its introduction in 2015.

Eh?

Been on desktop OSes since, well before 1998 (when Smart Phones started). Hardly innovative.

Updates on phones have always been a problem as the HW is so variable and till recently performance changing like PCs from 1982 to 2002, when it slowed down.

Not a problem unique to Google. Inevitable that mostly only new phones have the new OS version. It's likely that now as HW features have stabilized there will be a more standard specification and easier Android updates to exist phones, made after 2016 / 2017.

I can't see Sony or Google releasing updates for four year old Xperia Android phones.

There are sill new tablets on sale with ancient versions of Android. That's tantamount to dishonest marketing.

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Re: borrowed from Apple, who made a great fuss about its introduction in 2015.

When Apple does something before Android "big deal, it was on desktop years before". When Android does something before Apple, even if it was likewise on the desktop years earlier "Apple is always copying Android innovations!"

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FAIL

and it's not going to get any better ...

"Android" (like Google search) is fundamentally flawed, as things stand.

Google search - whichever way you dress it up, and whatever pixie dust you sprinkle over it - is a keyword based search. Fine when looking in the first few thousand sites we had in 1998. Completely useless in 2017 - and that's before you factor in the advertising/sponsored cruft that gets returned.

"Android" is already fragmented. I have lost count of the different permutations and combinations of "settings" I have had to juggle with, as each vendor customises each iteration of their version of Android.

It might have seemed a great wheeze in 2008, but as Microsoft and Apple have shown, you really need to nail down the core of the system. I stand to be corrected, but no matter *who* you got your PC from - manufacturer or retailer, "Control Panel" was the same (obviously corporations could then apply Group Policy, but that was still onto a vanilla install).

On an aside, WTF does MrsPages Android require an internet connection to answer the voice command: "What time is it ?"

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Re: and it's not going to get any better ...

Because you DON'T want to hear the voice reply that comes out when the device is left to its own resources. Good text-to-speech still requires cloud levels of resources.

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Re: and it's not going to get any better ...

err, you can do decent text to speech with a puny dsp...

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Re: and it's not going to get any better ...

But you said, "DECENT," which to my ears means something out of a Votrax chip. By GOOD, I'm referring to speech playback that actually sounds darn close to coming out of an actual person. The difference between the built-in TTS and the cloud TTS is like night and day and will remain that way for a while yet. Just compare by trying the system in Airplane Mode so it can't access the cloud.

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Anonymous Coward

Theres a thing - I saw this article and wondered if there were any update(s) for my phone and lo, a security update for 7.0 !

I suspect the availability of an update indicates the "meh-ness" of the update, so plenty of phones bought with 6 will get 7 ("meh"), but a lot fewer starting at 5.0 or earlier ever got 6

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Maker's update

There is a Sony update for my phone. You need to first install a windows application. Which either doesn't work, or is for some flavour I don't have (I do have old PCs with various versions for such purposes as I use Linux for real work now.).

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Unhappy

The convenience of OTA

Does not seem very convenient.

Let me see

Google --> phone maker --> Network --> Customer phone.

And yet.

The phone in the users hand has not changed. Why don't the phone mfg leave their drives be and just pass through the upgraded Android? Or does Android have "clearly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty" in it?

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Updates are not always trouble free

Even though Apple has total control of both hardware and software, and has only a small number of models to worry about, there are still occasional problems with updates (along with various complaints from a few for every update that it "killed my battery life" or whatever)

Even if Google overcomes the hurdles and starts delivering updates more often, given their lack of control of the hardware and the massively larger number of models, the odds of issues are obviously much higher than with iOS. The more updates they do, the more problems there will be. That might keep OEMs from pushing updates even if they have the option - not to mention the incentive of obsoleting phones sooner so people have to buy another.

If Google was able to bypass the OEMs and carriers entirely and push OS updates directly like they do for the apps, each bungled update that caused problems for owners of certain phones would diminish consumer goodwill until people simply stopped updating to avoid the risk, and all the work to get to this point would be for nothing.

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Who are they kidding?

therefore Google's revenues which on Android remain half of that generated on iOS

The implication is that Google could double their revenues if Android weren't a festering swamp of fragmented code. How does that work? How exactly would Google make more money from pimping my data if my ageing Sammy S3 were running Noughat, Orangesauce, (or next year, Poop), instead of Jelly Bean?

And even if it is true, it doesn't fix the central problem for Google (which they have carefully ignored) which is that too many phone makers aren't making money from Android phones, because all the profits accrue to Google, with Samsung just about washing their face.

Now, in some parallel universe, less fragmentation might mean double the revenues, AND in that parallel universe, the Google equivalent says "hey, lets share all this revenue with the handset makers to encourage a healthy and sustainable ecosystem". Back here, nope, ain't going to happen.

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Re: Who are they kidding?

therefore Google's revenues which on Android remain half of that generated on iOS

Considering iTunes (30% to Apple?) and inability for most users to transfer files without it and also Apple's massive "brand" fuelled obscene rip off profit margin on the HW sale (which Google gets almost nothing from), it's hard to see how Google can even be doing as well as half.

Google & Facebook profits almost entirely rely on [illegal in EU and other countries with close ties to EU] exploitation of privacy rather than actual sale of services. Yes, there is the Google Play Store, Google's legal equivalent of iTunes. So I expect Google profits to fall unless they get very clever. The EU is waking up and soon won't have UK disrupting action against USA businesses ripping off European privacy.

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A question about "experts"

If one needs a quote saying "Apple is doomed" or "iOS is doomed", she phones Rob Enderle. That's simple.

But whom one should ask for a good "Android is doomed" quote?

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Re: A question about "experts"

Steve Ballmer

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Mushroom

Sometimes it's not really the OEMs fault

Qualcomm simply refused to update the Snapdragon 80x drivers to Android 7. And the 80x was a flagship chip. It killed a lot of of phones, even a Sony phone that had an OFFICIAL Nougat beta ROM that had to pulled in the 11th hour.

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Trollface

What is it going to be called?

Forget all that technical crap. What is Android O going to be called? I'd have suggested Opal Fruits, but that was rebranded years ago (no marathoning at the back).

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