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Google May Publicly ‘Shame’ Android Smartphone Makers

May 25, 2016, 8:27 PM UTC
Google's Android mobile OS.
Google's Android mobile OS.
Photograph by Bloomberg via Getty Images

To address problems getting smartphone makers to add the latest version of Android, Google could turn to publicly shaming them.

Google has drawn up a list that ranks smartphone makers by how quickly they release security updates and new versions of Android to their customers, Bloomberg has reported, citing sources with knowledge of the situation. And now, Google is deciding whether it should publicly publish the list to make it harder for vendors to avoid updating their devices, Bloomberg’s sources say.

Google (GOOGL) did not respond to a request for comment.

Although Android is by far the most popular operating system, Google has long been dealing with an issue known as “fragmentation.” The company introduces a new version of Android every year, but few people are able to run the new hardware unless they buy a new handset or are among the lucky few who get software updates from their existing smartphone maker.

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Earlier this month, Google released a monthly update about how many users have the various versions of its operating system. The company revealed that just 7.5% of all Android devices are running on its latest version, Marshmallow, which premiered in October while more than 35% were running Android 5.0 Lollipop, which reached smartphones in 2014. Another 32.5% are still running on the nearly three-year-old Android 4.4 KitKat.

To put that into perspective, Apple, which also releases monthly updates about its software adoption, said that 84% of iOS-based devices run on its latest launch iOS 9, which debuted last fall.

Fragmentation is a major issue not only for Google, but also consumers and developers. On the consumer side, customers who fail to update to the latest operating system version are left without the new features and security upgrades they’d get in newer versions. Developers, meanwhile, need to expend more resources to ensure their apps work across different versions of operating system. The fewer the operating systems developers need to worry about, the lower the development cost.

While Google has tried to break down barriers to fix fragmentation, the company has little power. For one, smartphone makers are the ones who ultimately decide whether to dedicate resources to deploy the latest operating system to existing customers. From there, carriers need to allow the updates to be pushed over their networks—a seemingly simple task, but one that carriers are somewhat reluctant to do.

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Apple (AAPL) doesn’t need to deal with the same degree of issues as Google. Apple only allows its operating system to run on its own devices and directly pushes out updates. Unlike Google, Apple doesn’t need to worry about third-party companies acting as a bottleneck, but does use carrier networks to send over-the-air updates to users.

The idea of ranking vendors, therefore, might be a good way for Google to address its fragmentation problems. Companies that actively update their software and deliver security updates could be viewed more favorably by customers and developers. It might also make companies less likely to drag their feet on their updates.

Then again, nothing has worked so far. Vendors are focused on selling hardware, and updating software is often an after-thought. Whether publicly shaming them into delivering new software will do the trick is unclear.