Updating the graphics drivers on your smartphone isn't something you think about, because it isn't something you have much of any control over. That's because, for now, those driver updates generally only come alongside larger OS updates that your phone receives once a year (if you're lucky). With the Snapdragon 865, that's about to change, likely thanks to the changes Google has made to Android with Project Mainline, announced at Google I/O earlier this year.
Project Mainline, if you're a little hazy, is essentially the next big step in Google's ongoing effort to make Android updates more and more modular, and less dependent on major OS upgrades that tend to happen very infrequently on most phones. While Qualcomm wouldn't explicitly confirm its plans to offer updates to its Adreno GPU drivers over the Play Store were a direct consequence of Project Mainline, they all but said that was the case when I queried them during a briefing last month. There might be a couple of other pieces in play here, but Mainline is clearly what allowed this to go from idea to reality.
What benefits would updating your GPU more frequently have? Likely, you'd see more patches to rectify issues like game crashes, optimization for performance on new titles, and potentially support for new features. Qualcomm wouldn't commit to any exact update schedule or planned upgrades to the Adreno 650 on the Snapdragon 865—which for now is the only GPU that will get these updates—but hopefully the company is able to provide such updates to all of its GPUs moving forward. Additionally, I asked Qualcomm if these modular drivers could be backported to Mainline-enabled phones like Pixel 3 and Pixel 4, but did not receive an answer to those questions in time for publication. But I think the bigger picture here is what matters: a more modular Android.
Back at I/O, I asked Google if Mainline could be used to facilitate more than just modular security patches, and the answers I got were suspiciously vague (as in, I suspected the real answer was "yes, but we're not talking about that yet"). I hope graphics drivers are really just the beginning of this sort of modular approach, because it's sure starting to look like Mainline could have wider implications for the ecosystem. If much more of a phone's peripheral firmware and drivers could be updated without the need for a full OS patch, it could help reduce the burden on manufacturers and carriers and further streamline the Android OS for easier upgrades. Project Treble was the first big step Google took there last year, as part of Android 9 Pie, and Project Mainline now seems to be building on that work. I can only guess as to what Google's final vision for a fully modular Android looks like, but it's clear we're starting to take real steps toward achieving it.
Having spoken with a representative at Qualcomm, I've cleared up a few questions from this post.
- Backporting: There are no plans to backport the ability to update GPU drivers to existing smartphones, even those with Project Mainline. Only phones with Qualcomm's new chips going forward will be able to do this.
- Supported chips: The Snapdragon 865, 765/G, and all future Snapdragon chipsets will support the ability to update the GPU drivers via the Play Store.
- Update frequency: The frequency of driver updates will be down to the individual OEM, who will be required to test each driver release against their smartphones before updating through the Play Store proceeds.