Android 11 will leave OEMs with fewer excuses for slow updates

Every year at WWDC, Apple indirectly puts the Android world to shame when it reveals adoption numbers for its supported iOS versions. While things have certainly improved in the last two or three years, there is still much left to be desired. Part of the problem lies in the dynamics between Google as Android maker and manufacturers as Android implementers. The latter, of course, has the final word on when they would push out Android updates, big and small, but Android 11 will more or less force OEMs to fall in line with Google's push for more seamless and faster updates.

Since Android 7.0 Nougat in 2016, Google has been using what it has called A/B partitioning to reduce the downtime required when installing and applying systems updates. In a nutshell, this simply means that a phone keeps another partition for the operating system where an update can be downloaded in the background. In order to actually install the new Android version, the two partitions are just flipped so that the next update will download on the previously active partition.

Manufacturers like Samsung didn't exactly rush to implement A/B OTA updates, better known as Seamless Updates, for one admittedly valid reason. While Seamless Updates feel fast for end users, the partitioning means some storage space is taken up by the OS, unavailable to the user. OK for phones with 256GB of storage or above, not so nice for those with less. Instead, manufacturers use third-party OTA services of their own which use the traditional approach to system updates to save up space.

Android 11, however, will be introducing Virtual A/B that promises to combine the speed of A/B OTA with the space savings of traditional OTA services. This uses the same concept as the former but, being virtual, space for partitions can be freely resized as needed. Android 10 actually already had Virtual A/B but Android 11 will make it mandatory for OEMs that want to ship with Google's Mobile Service and apps.

This means that Samsung and other phone makers will have no choice but to at least implement virtual A/B. It won't be a guarantee of speeding up their internal testing for updates but they at least now have the frameworks necessary for rolling them out sooner and reducing the time users have to wait for updates to finish installing.