Getting phone makers and carriers to update to the latest version of Android has been one of the thorniest challenges facing Google as it tries to widen the use of its mobile software and generate more sales from its apps and web services.
Now, Google is getting serious about remedying what ails Android, and it's using both carrots and sticks to get partners to keep the world's most popular mobile operating system more up to date.
The issue -- a mishmash of different smartphones running outdated software lacking the latest security and features -- has plagued Android since its debut in 2007. But Google has stepped up its efforts recently, accelerating security updates, rolling out technology workarounds and reducing phone testing requirements.
The Alphabet unit is also getting tougher, drawing up rankings that could shame some phone makers into better behavior, according to people familiar with the situation.
Keeping Android fresh and unified is crucial because that's how Google delivers its money-making search engine and new offerings, like the Daydream virtual reality system, in an increasingly mobile world. This only works when phone makers and wireless carriers quickly update devices to newer versions of the operating system.
So far, that's not happening, creating "fragmentation" in industry lingo -- which means new Google features, like last year's Now on Tap and fixes for now-infamous Stagefright software bugs, only reach a fraction of Android's active user base of 1.4 billion.
If Google doesn't fix this, it may struggle to compete with Apple. As smartphones get more capable, complex and hackable, having the latest software work closely with the hardware is increasingly important. Apple designs both, giving it more control over when and how its operating system is loaded onto iPhones. The result: 84% of Apple's mobile devices run the latest iOS software, compared with 7.5% of Android devices that run Marshmallow, the newest Android OS.
"It's not an ideal situation," said Android chief Hiroshi Lockheimer at Google's I/O developer conference last week, while describing the lack of updates as "the weakest link on security on Android."
Consumers and regulators are unsatisfied too. A Dutch consumer group sued Samsung Electronics, the largest Android phone maker, in January for neglecting to update many devices. In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission sent a letter to carriers, manufacturers, Apple and Google asking how they can ensure faster updates.
Google is making progress persuading phone makers and carriers to install security updates quicker "for the good of users," Lockheimer said. The same expedited process may then be used to send operating system updates to phones, he explained.
The most challenging discussions are with carriers, which can be slow to approve updates because they test them thoroughly to avoid network disruption. Verizon Communications' tests can take months, according to a former employee of the largest U.S. wireless provider. It has shaved a few weeks off at the behest of Google and customers, the person said. Shortening it further is difficult because Verizon supports so many different Android phones, which must be tested before updates go live, the person added. Albert Aydin, a Verizon spokesman, said the company works closely with all partners throughout the process, but declined to comment specifically on Google.
Sprint has cut its approval process from as long as 12 weeks to "a few weeks," said Ryan
Stagefright, which left almost a billion devices vulnerable to being taken over by hackers, shook the Android ecosystem and prodded Google into leading by example. Soon after, the company started releasing monthly Android security patches, which it sent to its Nexus devices. These are designed by Google, giving it Apple-like control over updates. Other Android handset makers, including LG Electronics and Samsung, committed to monthly updates, but have struggled to keep to that schedule for all their phones.
Smaller Android phone makers didn't even attempt the monthly goal. HTC Corp. executive Jason Mackenzie called it "unrealistic" last year. Motorola previously tried to get handsets three years old or newer patched twice a year. It's now aiming for quarterly updates, according to a person familiar with the situation.
Google is trying to persuade carriers to exclude its security patches from the full series of tests, which can cost several hundred thousand dollars for each model, according to an executive at a leading Android handset maker.
"Google has come a long way since Stagefright," said Joshua Drake, a senior researcher at mobile security firm Zimperium. But it's still a struggle because some carriers don't treat security as a priority, while phone makers have other incentives, such as selling new devices, he added.
Google is using more forceful tactics. It has drawn up lists that rank top phone makers by how up-to-date their handsets are, based on security patches and operating system versions, according to people familiar with the matter. Google shared this list with Android partners earlier this year. It has discussed making it public to highlight proactive manufacturers and shame tardy vendors through omission from the list, two of the people said. The people didn't want to be identified to maintain their relationships with Google.
"Google is putting pressure on," said Sprint's Sullivan, who has seen data that Google uses to track who is falling behind. "Since we are the final approval, we are applying pressure because our customers are expecting it."
Gina Scigliano, a spokeswoman for Google, declined to comment.
Google is reducing its reliance on the update process too. New features, such as the Allo messaging service, now often come out as standalone apps, rather than part of a new version of the Android operating system. Google can refresh these without carrier tests.
It's also making some new features compatible with earlier versions of the operating system. Instant Apps, unveiled last week, works on phones running versions as old as Jellybean, which came out in 2012. This means 95% of Android users will get access to the technology, which lets people test apps before deciding whether to download them.
The next big test will come in the fall, when the latest Android N operating system comes out. Google released a preview in March, earlier than usual, giving phone manufacturers more time to adapt their phones.
Still, Google's many efforts may be stymied. Extra investments of time and money are a hard sell for Android phone makers, which are seeing margins slide and get most of their profits when people buy new phones, rather than update existing devices. Carriers are loath to surrender control over updates to Google because they may be blamed for problems.
"The best way to solve this problem is a massive re-architecture of the operating system," said Mike Chan, co-founder of phonemaker Nextbit who worked at Android for several years. Or Google could invest in training manufacturers and carriers "to be good Android citizens," he added.
In other words, bigger sticks and tastier carrots.
-- Bloomberg News