The issue is more complicated than you think
Many people are welcoming Google’s newest Android update, Marshmallow, with delight and glee – least of which are Nexus and Android One owners. Unfortunately, not everybody celebrates when Google announces, and releases, a new version of their smartphone OS. People who own Android phones bought from local brands more often than not are shafted when it comes to getting Android updates – something that many tinkerers and devs are aware of. A lot of people point the finger to the most prolific processor maker in the planet – MediaTek – for the delayed updates.
But that’s not the case, says MediaTek. We managed to sit down with Cedric Chang, Account Div. Manager, Emerging Markets for the Taiwanese company during the sidelines of Cherry Mobile’s recent event to talk all things processors, updates and ODMs. He paints a very complex picture when it comes to updates, local brands, and ODMs. And while people like to point their fingers to MediaTek and their apparent lack of openness when it comes to their SoCs, he’s quick to point to the company’s close relationship to Google, especially for the Android One program. “Actually, I’m not sure that you know about the relationship of MediaTek and Google. Google only has 1 partner for the 3G chipset, and that’s MediaTek. Even Qualcomm is not their 3G partner. For LTE, they have two partners – us (MediaTek) and Qualcomm. The reason why I mention this is that since we are a chipset provider and we offer turnkey (solutions), so all the software we make ready one or two months after official release. We put a lot of effort (software updates) compared to other chipset providers who are also offering turnkey, for example, Qualcomm,” he says.
“We have an engineer that actually works closely with Google. We work with them all the time. For Marshmallow, for instance, we worked with them from the very beginning,” he adds.
So if MediaTek is so close to Google, what’s the holdup for updates? Well, according to Cedric, it’s usually down to the ODM. Most (if not all) local brands use ODM (original design manufacturer) companies to produce devices for them. Essentially these companies outsource production of pre-designed mobile phones that have parts and materials that local brands choose from. While MediaTek provides the heart of the smartphone, which is the processor, it’s up to the ODM to integrate other hardware components into the design – from displays, cameras, batteries and RAM – to produce a complete phone. This hardware integration also requires customization and coding that’s done on the ODM side of things. Once the phone hits this side of the planet, local brands then further customize the radios and other parts to their liking.
The issues arise when a new version of Android rolls around. Just like when a new version of Windows drops, it’s not guaranteed that all parts will play nice with the new OS. That’s the same issue with smartphones – while the new OS should work with existing hardware, extensive testing needs to be done by all parts manufacturers to make sure everything goes smoothly – including MediaTek. The ODM then needs to take the updated drivers for all the hardware (along with whatever new Android OS is) and make an OTA. If everything goes according to plan, the ODMs then release the OTA (or the equivalent) to companies and in our case, local brands that acquired units from them.
Unfortunately, that’s an optimistic scenario at best. Not all ODMs have the expertise, or even the manpower, to do this. New chipsets and hardware get released all the time, and many of them prefer to funnel their limited manpower to the latest and greatest rather than work on past releases. Volume of units sold by local brands also play a part here – a local brand that sells a ton of phones from a particular ODM has a bigger bargaining chip over a brand that only managed to sell a handful of units. for example. While it’s easy to lay the blame on local brands or even MediaTek, the real story is much more complicated.