What is Project Treble? The Android upgrade fix explained

Google's Project Treble promises to pave the way for faster Android upgrades — so what exactly is it? And how will it work?

Credit: IDG / Android

It's tough to talk about Project Treble without getting lost in a forest of technical gobbledygook.

And it's no wonder: Project Treble (take a deep breath) is Google's ambitious effort to rearchitect Android in order to establish a modular base in which the lower-level code created by silicon vendors is separated from the main Android operating system framework so that device manufacturers can update the OS code without having to rely on silicon vendors to refresh the lower-level code for every release.

Whew! See what I mean?

In reality, though, Project Treble doesn't have to be so complicated. Let's break down what Treble is actually all about, in real-world terms — and what it actually means for you, as someone who uses Android and doesn't necessarily speak the language of mumbo-jumbo.

We'll start at the beginning:

What is Project Treble — in plain English?

I just fed the technical explanation into my patented Geek-to-English Translation Machine, and here's what came out: Project Treble, at its core, is all about making it faster, easier, and cheaper for phone makers to process Android software updates and get them out to users.

That's the short version. Now, the context: In the past, every time a new Android version came along, phone makers had to wait for the chipset vendors — the companies like Qualcomm, which supply the processors and other pieces inside the devices — to update the areas of the code related to all of that internal hardware. It was only when that effort was finished that the phone-maker was able to start its part of the process: integrating the new Google-provided software with its own interface customizations and feature additions, then testing it all thoroughly and getting it ready to roll out.

What Treble does is separate that lower-level stuff — the areas of the code related to a phone's processor, modem, and so on — from the rest of the operating system. That way, those lower-level elements don't have to be updated every time a new Android version comes along; they just exist as a constant foundation beneath everything else, and that first part of the process is no longer required.

project treble explained chart IDG / Computerworld

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To borrow an analogy from an earlier analysis, you can think of the whole thing like a pie: Up till now, all of Android was mixed together, and that meant each ingredient had to be updated and stirred into the batter from scratch with every single OS update. Thanks to Treble, all the hardware-specific elements now exist as a crust — one that remains in place for a device's entire life. And so whenever a new Android release arrives, the phone maker can focus solely on its part of the process — the filling — without first having to wait for someone else to provide a freshly made foundation.

Google actually started this process with its Android 8.0 Oreo release, in 2017, by creating the initial boundary between the operating system and the lower-level code. Rather fittingly, however, the Android 9 Pie software marks the first time the setup is complete and operational — with chipset vendors ready to support it and with a significant number of Treble-ready devices out in the wild and waiting.

Why is Project Treble even necessary?

Over the past several years, Android upgrades have devolved into a big, hot mess — and that's putting it mildly: Aside from Google itself, with its Pixel line of phones, no Android device maker provides consistently timely and reliable software updates. And it's the users who suffer, getting stuck with dated software that lacks not only features and interface improvements from newer releases but also privacy and security enhancements and a variety of other under-the-hood improvements that only OS updates can provide.

While Google has taken significant steps to make OS updates less all-important on Android — unbundling most system-level apps and services from the operating system so they can be updated regularly and universally, directly through the Play Store, and providing an increasing array of device options that come with timely update guarantees — it can't remove all of the importance from the core system software. And the vast majority of Android users remain on devices that receive OS updates painfully late, if ever.

And that's why Project Treble came about — to try to cut out some of the time and cost associated with processing OS updates so that manufacturers would step up their games and users could start getting current software more quickly.

How much difference will Project Treble actually make?

That's the million-dollar question — and at this point, it's simply too soon to say. What we do know is that, according to Google, Treble should shave about three months off the typical upgrade process by eliminating that initial lower-level phase.

To put that in perspective, Samsung took seven months from the date of Android 8.0's release to get the software onto its then-current-gen U.S. flagship. If all other factors are equal, then, it should take Samsung roughly four months to deliver an update in a post-Treble world. In other words, Pie should — in theory — begin to roll out to Samsung's current U.S. flagships around December. That would be a decidedly average "C"-level performance on my upgrade evaluation scale but a marked improvement over the company's previous performance.

The problem is that all other factors aren't always equal, as evidenced by most phone-makers' slipping delivery times over the past several years. And beyond that, the level of work required to process an update varies significantly from one manufacturer to the next. A company like LG, for instance, makes major modifications to the Android software, with its own elaborate custom interface and series of add-on features. A company like Motorola, on the other hand, sticks closely to Google's "stock" Android interface and implements only minor changes to the software — so in theory, at least, it should take Motorola far less effort to process and deliver each new update.

At the same time, of course, a company of Samsung's size almost certainly has more resources at its disposal than a company of Motorola's stature. But on the other hand, Samsung may or may not opt to devote many of its resources to the realm of post-sales software support — because it sells plenty of phones, regardless, so why bother? As you can see, there's no shortage of variables to consider and no simple or consistent formula for Treble's effect.

On a related note, we have to consider the reality that post-sales software support truly does require a fair amount of time and resources — with or without Treble's adjustments in place — and all of that effort brings little tangible benefit to the typical third-party Android device maker. In fact, one could argue that providing timely and reliable software improvements actively works against most companies' interests, as it makes phone owners less likely to feel the need to spend money on a new device. Treble, unfortunately, can't address that part of the equation; if phone makers see no reason to make timely ongoing upgrades a priority, all the optimization in the world won't make an ounce of difference.

For now, what we can say is that Treble will cut out a significant portion of the work required for phone makers to process and deliver OS updates — and if a company is so inspired, that should absolutely make it possible for upgrades to be delivered faster without any additional investments. How things play out from there is ultimately in each manufacturer's hands.

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