Google’s Project Mainline, announced at I/O 2019, will deliver security updates to Android devices through the Play Store. Google is bypassing the traditional, slower update channels dependent on device manufacturers and carriers. Here’s what this means for you.
Before we can look at what Project Mainline means for the future, however, it’s probably best to consider Android’s troubled past when it comes to updates.
Android “Fragmentation” Has Long Been an Issue
You can hardly hear anything about Android without the word “fragmentation” coming up. Basically, this refers to the fact that different Android devices are all running different versions of the operating system. This is, of course, in contrast to iPhones, which are all running the same operating system (all devices that support iOS 12 are running iOS 12, for example).
It’s a problem that has plagued Android almost since Android began—even now, I have four different Android devices at arm’s length, and all four are running different versions. Google has done a lot to try combat this issue in the past, but nothing has seemed to really pan out. While full Android OS updates are still going to be something that will take a lot of work, Project Mainline is going to combat what’s arguably more important: security updates.
The Android Update Alliance Failed
In an initial attempt to combat fragmentation, the Android Update Alliance was announced at Google I/O 2011. The goal was a noble one: to work with carriers and manufacturers to provide more timely Android updates.
At the time, we thought this would be the end of fragmentation as we knew it. The bad news is that, outside of announcing it existed, the Alliance did absolutely nothing to combat the slow update process. Like, nothing.
It was so DOA that stories were coming out as little as a year later asking what happened to it. It never surfaced; never proved good on any of the promises. It left phones in the same sad state they were in the first place: out of date and, worse, insecure.