What if the software obsolescence of Android phones was not necessarily the fault of the manufacturers, but rather that of Qualcomm? This is what the recent communication from Fairphone seems to suggest.

A five-year-old smartphone has just received an update for an almost three-year-old operating system. Stated like this, the news may make you smile, but in the small world of Android smartphones it is a real achievement and good news.

The lucky winner is none other than the Fairphone 2 released in 2015 which has just received an update to Android 9. Built by the small Dutch company of the same name, the mobile had the ambition to become the most repairable smartphone and the most eco-responsible on the market. And if the company has stopped marketing the device since the beginning of 2019, it therefore continues to support it from a software point of view, highlighting in passing one of the weaknesses of the Android ecosystem: the lack of cooperation from Qualcomm.

Only three years of follow-up

A superstar company in the mobile world, Qualcomm equips the vast majority of Android mobiles with its Snapdragon chips which manage critical aspects of the phone ranging from the processor to network compatibility including photo processing. But Qualcomm is also responsible for the software obsolescence of many Android mobiles.

The chips distributed by Qualcomm have an expiration date which corresponds to the moment when the company stops monitoring them. These components being in a way the heart of our smartphones, they must be regularly maintained to offer compatibility with the most recent versions of Android. If Qualcomm stops offering the drivers needed to adopt new versions of Google’s OS, then it becomes nearly impossible to deploy updates.

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The traditional circuit of an Android update // Source: Fairphone

Currently, Qualcomm promises to track its chips for at least three years. A laughable commitment to Apple which provides follow-up for at least 5 years, but an improvement over the two years the company provided previously.

The Do It Yourself software

This is where the Fairphone announcement is interesting. The Fairphone 2 is equipped with a Snapdragon 801 chip released in 2014 and which Qualcomm stopped supporting after the release of Android 6 in 2015. As a result, Fairphone had to work without Qualcomm to release new versions of Android on its mobile phone. . ” It is the only smartphone [sous Snapdragon 801 NDLR] to receive, an update to Android 9 and we had to build the operating system without any support from the chipmaker Qualcomm Explains Agnes Crepet, software manager at Fairphone.

For a company of just 80 people, it is therefore a real achievement to deploy such an update on a 5-year-old smartphone. ” We adopted an approach Do it Yourself to provide software tracking of the Fairphone 2 to enable people to extend the life of their phones », Explains the manager who takes the opportunity to thank the community who helped develop this update.

To get an idea of ​​the investment required for such a project, in 2018 when updating the Fairphone 2 to Android 7, the company estimated the cost of the project at € 500,000. A colossal sum for a phone which has sold 100,000 copies.

The interest of these updates is less to discover the novelties of the latest versions of Android than to allow the mobile to continue to benefit from the monthly security patches deployed by Google.

Treble, a new architecture for Android

The Fairphone case therefore illustrates the problem of the Android ecosystem, which must rely on the collaboration of a large number of players in the industrial chain to ensure the monitoring of updates, and here Qualcomm is not really playing the game.

It is for this reason, moreover, that Google has for a few years launched the Treble project which aims to make the architecture of Android more flexible, more modular… and less dependent on manufacturers of Qualcomm-type chips. In theory, Treble allows you to update the operating system of a mobile without having to touch the Qualcomm platform.

As usual, Fairphone therefore wants to lead by example in order to encourage the industry to do better. But today, if we must look for someone responsible for the fragmentation of the Android ecosystem, it is probably on Qualcomm’s side that we should dig.

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