One of the reasons we’re keen on Nexus devices is that you’re guaranteed to get Android updates as soon as they are available – unlike many handsets where you’re at the mercy of manufacturers and carriers, who update either slowly or not at all. The effect of slow-acting OEMs and carriers has been a highly-fragmented Android market, with less than half of all devices running Jelly Bean.

Google can’t do anything about this, but arstechnica has a fascinating piece on why that doesn’t matter. First, Google has put most of the really cool stuff into new or updated apps, rather than into the OS itself. Google Hangouts, Google Play Games, Google Play Music, cloud saving of game data and so on. Nothing we didn’t know there. But the clever – or sneaky, depending on how you look at it – part of this is how Google makes this approach work, even with elderly versions of Android … 

Ron Amadeo explains:

The first reason this is now possible is a little app that has finally come of age: “Google Play Services.”

Calling Play Services an “app” doesn’t really tell the whole story. For starters, it has an insane amount of permissions. It’s basically a system-level process, and if the above list isn’t enough for whatever it needs to do next, it can actually give itself more permissions without the user’s consent.

Play Services constantly runs in the background of every Android phone, and nearly every Google app relies on it to function. It’s updatable, but it doesn’t update through the Play Store like every other app. It has its own silent, automatic update mechanism that the user has no control over. In fact, most of the time the user never even knows an update has happened. The reason for the complete and absolute power this app has is simple: Google Play Services is Google’s new platform.

Effectively, the OS has been relegated to handing the basic level stuff, while all the new and clever functions are carried out by a layer sitting between the OS and the app. That layer has so many permissions it’s effectively an extension of Android itself, but Google can update it at will – without the manufacturer, carrier or user even being aware of it.

Contrast the installed userbase of Jelly Bean with the installed devices that support Google Play Services:


This, then, is the reason Google has added many of Android’s default apps to the Play Store: because it can update both the apps, and the bits of Android needed to run them, without requiring the cooperation of either handset manufacturer or carrier.

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3 Responses to “Google’s clever workaround for manufacturers & carriers slow to update Android”

  1. I view it as more of a backwoods work around that is bound to be inefficient and limited.

  2. Any idea what KitKat would be? Will features be compatible with the Galaxy Nexus? Why 4.4 instead of 5.0? Does that mean its more of a minor update? Id think when they give a version a new nickname, it would come with a new number. Thats why people often say Google’s numbering system is confusing. We will now have 3 different nicknames for 4.0 (ICS) , Jelly Bean for 4.2/4.3, KitKat for 4.4… so 5.0 wont arrive until 2014 now? Sounds disappointing. Licorice? Lemon Merengue (they said people in the world dont know what KeyLimePie tastes like )…But more importantly I wonder if Mars is already talking to Google about Android M&M. I can see special edition M&Ms right now with the Android mascot. At least Nexus phones and tablets should come with a free KitKat bar. I wonder what the sales increases for Kit Kat bars will be this week.

    • >>Why 4.4 instead of 5.0? Does that mean its more of a minor update?

      Possibly, yes. I guess it depends on how you look at the ‘minor’ vs. ‘major’ issue. From a traditional developer’s viewpoint, Kit Kat could well be seen as a ‘minor’ iteration; it will likely keep the current Android Compatibility Definition Document (CDD) as well as the look and feel of the Jelly Bean user-interface.

      >> Any idea what KitKat would be?

      For much of this year, various people on the Android team have been hinting that this next name-change update will focus on serious optimization, i.e: improved performance for even ‘budget’ handsets.. The idea is to repair Android’s reputation (in some circles) for running poorly on mid-range chipsets.