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Why do Android updates arrive so late?

And what Google has been doing to solve it

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With new devices popping up left and right, more and more people now have access to the latest Android operating system (OS) and its technologies. From artificial intelligence (AI)-powered cameras to smoother, simpler designs to the user interface, Android has been looking to attract more users to its platform over the past few years.

However, there are consumers who own or wish to buy cheaper devices that still unfortunately use the older versions of Android, and wonder if they get to experience the new updates for themselves — only for them to realize that it’s the end of the line for their gadgets.

Updates arrive slower, mostly in small parts, and sometimes the entire OS cannot be upgraded any further. The questions Android developers have been facing from consumers within the last few years are these: Why do updates arrive so late, and what is Google doing about it?

The Android way

The Android operating system is one big, open-source platform for developers and manufacturers. This means that they are given the liberty to modify such software to introduce and improve their products. Android smartphone companies are able to set themselves apart from the others mostly because of this approach towards the unique interfaces.

According to Google’s Android Developers website, 63.2 percent of Android devices in the market run on older Android systems than Android 7.0 Nougat; manufacturers opt to sell their devices with much older software due to their insistence of applying their own Android “skins” or their own version of the OS.

Companies such as Xiaomi, Samsung, Huawei, and ASUS customize the Android operating systems to give users a unique experience when using their devices. Xiaomi’s MIUI 10 and Samsung’s Experience bring new features for AI and major redesigns for their latest smartphones. ASUS’ ZenUI offers features that support the gaming capabilities of their smartphones, while Huawei’s EMUI allows you to sync your LinkedIn account to your address book.

Implementing such skins either limits the number of updates the device receives, or it makes the gadget no longer upgradeable. This is how Android fragmentation works, and unfortunately, is also the reason you can’t get your older Android device to upgrade to the latest software easily.

People were excited when several companies announced which smartphones would receive an upgrade to Android 8.0 Oreo over the past few months. However, only about six percent of devices have the update ready for users either due to delays in the rollout or because of bugs that affected the device’s performance.

Android fragmentation has become a problem for third-party developers, especially those who were hoping to use the newer and more updated software to create better games and utility apps for people. Because of fragmentation, developers are limited to the older and less secure versions of Android, as well as the codes and programs that come with it.

The applications these developers make are not guaranteed to work without encountering problems along the way. The late arrival of updates hampers the developers’ ability to make any changes to their applications, and even put the user’s safety at risk.

Google’s plan of action

At present, the developers at Google did a number of projects for updates to arrive faster and all at once for third-party developers and phone manufacturers.

They came up with pure Android software known as Android One, and they encouraged device manufacturers to create smartphones using the Android One OS. Android One became Google’s standard for manufacturers and developers to use in their new devices and applications. With smartphones incorporating Android One, updates become more regular and can be streamlined across multiple devices all at once.

Android One was already available on a few devices since its initial launch in 2014, from the Cherry Mobile G1 to the Xiaomi Mi A1. However, the pure Android OS disappeared for a while because the software itself gave no freedom for manufactures to differentiate themselves. Eventually, Android One found itself back in the market with Nokia spearheading the effort to reintroduce it with the likes of the well-received Nokia 7 Plus.

Don’t confuse Android One with Android Go, Google’s cut-down version of its Android OS, however. While Android One is the standard Android software Google wants to apply across all devices, Android Go is designed for entry-level devices. Devices running Android Go will be able to maximize storage options and mobile data management for you, so you will be able to do many things with your phone without worrying about space and data consumption.

The latest experiment: Project Treble

Another project undertaken by Google to address the fragmentation issue is Project Treble. Project Treble is a service offered to users to help streamline the process of updating their software to the latest version from Android, and is currently offered to devices that have Android Oreo installed out of the box.

What Project Treble does is that it allows manufacturers to deliver the updates themselves, without having to go through long and expensive processes to deliver them. This also allows developers themselves to create applications using new codes and programs provided by the Android software.

Following Project Treble was the release of the beta version for Android P. Like in previous iterations, Google did this so developers can already work on their own software-specific applications and technologies that fit the profile Android P brings to the table. Of course, the beta version is still only available to a select number of companies working on new devices, but it will be available across all devices once a final version is released.

Initially, Project Treble and Android P Beta were only available on Google’s Pixel phones, but they’ve now branched out to non-Pixel phones, as well. Treble is available for all new devices that have Android Oreo pre-installed, so developers can experience Android P Beta and work around the new software. A list of devices that already support Android P Beta can be found here and on Android’s Developer website.

What’s next for Android?

With Project Treble and Android continuously bringing updates to the platform faster to consumers, Google is hoping to have just one centralized operating system in the future. Over the past year, Google has been working on Fuchsia, designed to be the central operating system that is potentially going to replace both Chrome OS and Android in the near future. Fuchsia is expected to further streamline updates as a way of fighting Android fragmentation.

Android P is still in its beta version as of writing, meaning that Google is getting feedback from companies that have devices already powered or tested using the latest Android software over the past few months. Google is constantly working on better and faster ways for software updates to reach Android devices, provided that such devices have the necessary hardware to accommodate the upgrades.

For third-party developers, Google has even made their services more accessible to older Android devices. Recently, it gave older devices access to the company’s virtual assistant service, Google Assistant, as long as these devices were running at least an Android 5.0 Lollipop system.

With all these developments for Android, it’s safe to say that Google has done what it can to address the issue on updates arriving so late, so don’t worry if your phone is still running on an older Android OS, because Google hasn’t forgotten you.

Illustrations by Yanni Panesa

Explainers

The industry’s next big thing: Cloud gaming explained

It’s gaming on the go, but for internet that’s not slow

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Everybody’s getting into gaming these days, and you can’t blame them. With the pandemic continuing its ravaging ways in the world, people turn to their consoles or PCs for some action. However, not everyone can afford all the expensive PCs and the next-gen consoles when they come out.

Instead, a new player comes into the fray with a pretty great idea. What would happen if you can just play your favorite games from any device? Also, what if we told you that this won’t take up space on your device at all? This is basically what cloud gaming offers to you: a way to play games from any device at any time!

So, how does that actually work? What do you need to ensure quality gameplay, and should you even consider it?

The basics of playing on a cloud

On paper, it’s pretty easy to understand how cloud gaming works. Basically, you have access to a library of games from a cloud storage service. When you subscribe to the service, you can virtually play your library from any device regardless of the specs. Also, you don’t have to worry about storage problems since these games are stored on a server.

It’s no joke when these companies tell you that you can play your games on any device. With their dedicated data servers, they make sure that the games run smoothly once you access them from the cloud. On your end, you will need a strong and consistent internet connection to play the games smoothly.

Several companies already have cloud gaming software available for people to subscribe to. Some examples include NVIDIA’s GeForce Now, Microsoft’s xCloud, and Google Stadia — all of which store PC games on a server. These companies even take the time to update their server hardware every so often to bring the best possible quality.

System requirements for cloud gaming

Much like your ordinary PC or gaming console, companies that run cloud gaming servers need certain equipment to run smoothly. First, these companies must set up active data centers and server farms that run the games. These data centers ensure that games are up and running, while reducing latency. In other words, these serve as the powerhouse of cloud gaming.

Next on the list is the network infrastructure necessary to send these to the users. To ensure that people don’t experience lags when they play their games, companies also invest in acquiring proper data connections. However, in most cases, this isn’t something these companies have control over; it’s mostly coming from their available internet service providers.

On the front-end, companies also provide dedicated hardware and software to house the cloud. For example, NVIDIA integrated GeForce Now into their own cloud streaming device, the NVIDIA Shield back in 2013. Meanwhile, Google Stadia relies heavily on using pre-existing Google software like Google Chrome and the Stadia App.

Something great to offer, for the most part

Cloud gaming services offer something unique in the industry. Essentially, it eliminates the user from investing so much into buying expensive PCs as it allows people to play from virtually any device. Whether it’s on a smartphone, laptop, or even a smart TV, people get access to games at high frame rates without an RTX 3080.

Furthermore, the game and save files are stored on the cloud, and don’t take up any storage on your devices. This is greatly beneficial for people who are already running on limited storage space, especially if they play Call of Duty: Warzone. With everything stored on the cloud, you don’t need most of the 512GB of SSD storage.

However, one of the biggest issues with cloud gaming revolves around the thing it’s based on: the internet. Specifically, it’s on the user’s internet connection as these services require the fastest internet to run smoothly on any device. Basically, you will need either an Ethernet or a 5G wireless connection to ensure the lowest latency possible.

That infrastructure isn’t readily available in most markets, which is a prominent issue among several third-world countries. Furthermore, even if there are companies that have 5G in their pipeline, these same providers also put data caps on it. Even if the user can play at an optimal frame rate, they’re doing so with a restriction in place.

Does this new player have any place?

With the world continuously opening its arms to the gaming industry, innovation becomes the forefront of success. Companies come up with a variety of gaming technologies that seek to cater to a wide variety of people. From individual hardware to pre-built systems, gaming often revolved around these things.

With cloud gaming, it gives people not just another option within the mix. Rather, it seeks to challenge the notion of availability and accessibility, and give it a viable solution. Essentially, it takes away the physical hardware limitations on the user’s end, and makes it available for everyone.

But like most gaming technologies, everything is still limited somehow. These systems still experience bottlenecks both on the manufacturer and the user’s end. In the end, it will depend on how much you’re willing to shell out for them, and how willing you are to accept the risks.

Illustrations by Raniedel Fajardo

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Your MagSafe Questions Answered

Do you really need it?

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If you’ve ever owned an old MacBook before, you’ll know that those chargers magnetically snap onto place. That particular technology is called the ‘MagSafe’.

After the MacBook Pro touch bar and USB-C overhaul last 2016, everyone thought MagSafe ended for good. Not until they announced the new MagSafe for the iPhone 12 series four years later.

The MagSafe technology might not be new but the implementation for the latest iPhones makes the technology even more usable. Other than the securely-placed phone for wireless charging, there are a plethora of case manufacturers who continuously work on future accessories that support MagSafe existing ecosystem.

But is the Apple MagSafe more than just a gimmick? And do you really need it?

Watch our in-depth Apple MagSafe explainer here.

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Here’s how India is trying to be China in the smartphone game

The world’s second-largest smartphone market has more to offer

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China is practically the world’s production powerhouse. And India wants to follow the same path. India’s Central government has approved three schemes to enable large scale electronics manufacturing and attract fresh investments worth almost INR 50,000 crore (US$ 6.3 billion) in the sector.

The government aims to provide companies a production-linked incentive of 4 percent to 6 percent on incremental sales for locally made goods over a period of five years. This not only includes mobile phone manufacturing but also assembly, testing, marking and packaging.

The other policy offers a 25 percent financial incentive for capital expenditure that goes towards “the manufacturing of goods that constitute the supply chain of an electronic product”. With these incentives, the government is optimistic that companies will come to India, contribute to progressing infrastructure, and make export-quality goods.

Inauguration of Samsung’s Noida Factory in India

According to their estimates, domestic value addition for mobile phones is expected to witness 35 to 40 percent jump by 2025, from the current 20-25 percent.

So far, companies have focused on assembling equipment like smartphones in India. A huge chunk of the components are still imported. These policy changes could act as a stimulant to locally source electrical components, semiconductors, as well as develop production clusters.

Bangalore and Hyderabad are infamous for their IT Tech Parks that house thousands of employees from IT service firms like TCS, Infosys, Accenture, and many more. Similarly, the government wants to create production clusters that can develop an eco-system of their own. These clusters can create a seamless supply chain when paired with proper land, air, and shipment infrastructure.

The timing of the announcement is what matters the most. China is embroiled in a trade war with the US for quite some time and we’ve seen how a giant like Huawei got caught in the cross-fire. Companies are skeptical about depending too much on China for production and sourcing. Hence, countries like Vietnam have witnessed a huge inflow of foreign investment from the likes of Nintendo, Foxconn, and even Samsung.

India is very much like Vietnam. A developing economy that’s on the look-out for foreign investment and enhances local production capabilities. This not only helps the government increase its tax revenue via taxation, but also provides employment. Considering the current Coronavirus crisis, it’s obvious that these plans may not materialize soon. But, as soon as the storm is gone, companies would want to find an alternative to China.

Prime Minister, Narendra Modi with Apple CEO, Time Cook

It’s reported that the alleged low-cost iPhone from Apple has been delayed due to the pandemic. Irrespective of the current health crisis, Apple has been trying to ramp up its local production in India and has done so, cautiously. India is the world’s second-largest smartphone market and every brand wants a piece of the cake. Realme and Xiaomi have been intensely fighting for supremacy, Samsung continues to lead via the offline market, and OPPO and Vivo have flooded all commercial banners with their products.

Xiaomi currently has seven plants in India, major ones being at Sri City and Sriperumbedur. It also makes its televisions in Tirupathi. Manu Kumar Jain, Vice President, Xiaomi, and Managing Director, Xiaomi India said that 95 percent of Xiaomi’s phones are made in India with 65 percent of a phone’s value being sourced locally. The government has been successful in compelling companies to make in India because it consistently kept on raising import duty on smartphones.

Samsung already has the world’s largest mobile phone factory in India that assembles top-tier variants, ready for export. We don’t know the volume it churns out right now, but their long-term investment is a precedent for other brands to take the market seriously. OnePlus has a research facility in Hyderabad where it makes software products intended for the Indian market.

Samsung’s factory in Noida, India

According to industry ICEA, the NOIDA region (a part of Delhi NCR) has close to 80 mobile manufacturing factories that provide employment to approximately 50,000 people. It’s normal today to see companies release press notes announcing new facilities across the country that’ll employ thousands of people.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi kickstarted the “Make in India” campaign five years ago to encourage foreign companies to invest and build in India. While its effects are debatable in a few industries, there’s no doubt that the mobile industry has picked up exponentially. State governments of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu have played a major role in establishing these clusters that symbolize progress.

Engineers are widely available in India, the country has developed multiple ports under the private-public model, and numerous airports are under construction. India is already the world’s second-largest smartphone maker, but the gap is huge. It’s about briding this. Obviously, the scale at which China produces is unmatchable. But that cannot undermine India’s efforts to be more relevant on the global stage. From a purely consumption-based economy, it’s slowly trying to turning into a production backed state.

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