Sony has become the first smartphone manufacturer to use new software from mobile management firm Red Bend to deliver over-the-air updates to its Xperia range of devices, in order to address the growing problem of Android fragmentation.
Android is now the most widely adopted mobile operating system, accounting for 60 percent of all smartphone shipments. While such a wide ecosystem contributes to rapid innovation, the result is that new Android OS versions become available every six to nine months.
The size of the new Android versions is often unpredictable, and generally gets bigger with each new release. For example, Honeycomb was 110MB, whereas Ice Cream Sandwich is 171MB and Jelly Bean 203MB. This can make it difficult for Android smartphone manufacturers to accommodate new versions of the OS on existing devices.
Red Bend's vRapid Mobile firmware over the air (FOTA) software aims to solve this problem by enabling Android manufacturers to repartition flash memory to perform updates of new OS versions no matter how large the size of the new Android OS.
"On your computer, when you install a new operating system, you carve up the hard disk into different drive letters, so you have a C-drive, a D-drive, and an E-drive potentially, and each one of those is designed to hold a certain kind of information. So I have my operating system on the C-drive and I have my user data on my D-drive," said Richard Kinder, Red Bend's VP EMEA for Technology and New Business.
"Exactly the same concept happens in the phone at the time of manufacturing. There are basically partitions on the phone that are designed to hold certain things. The challenge is that this is set when it leaves the factory. So the question is how do you fit a quart into a pint pot, in terms of trying to get Jelly Bean into the space that Ice Cream Sandwich fitted before."
He explained that Red Bend's FOTA repartitioning tool can look at the file system that each partition is comprised of and dynamically resize it without compromising the integrity of the file system. It can then be cleared and a new version written to it.
"It's really about manipulating the file system structure and the partition tables of the device in a way that doesn't break them, so manufacturers can shrink and grow these partitions on the phone to accommodate new versions of Android," said Kinder.
Expanding one partition does result in another partition shrinking. However, this should not impact the amount of user data that can be stored on the device, according to Kinder, because most device manufacturers create a cache partition, and that partition will shrink if more of the OS partition is needed.
Firmware can be updated in the background while the mobile device is fully operational and does not require any additional memory, thanks to Red Bend's patented exe.diff and "in place" technologies.
Red Bend's vRapid Mobile FOTA updating technology will be integrated into all of Sony's new Android smartphones and tablets, and Red Bend hopes to extend the service to other OEM partners in time.
The problem of Android fragmentation was recently highlighted by Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller in an interview with Reuters, in which he said that Google's own research showed the vast majority of Android users were stuck on older versions of the operating system.
Schiller said that the host of customised versions of Android in the marketplace also poses a problem for consumers, because every Android update has to be tested to ensure a good fit for a multiplicity of handset makers before it can be widely released, which slows updates.