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Android phones will receive the tracking updates of COVID-19 through Google Play

Google has confirmed that it will use the Google Play Services infrastructure to update Android phones with the upcoming COVID-19 contact tracking system it is building in partnership with Apple. It should ensure that more Android phones actually get the updates and that they also become available on phones running Android 6.0 Marshmallow or above.

To this day, it was an open question, but one that was essential for Google to answer. That’s because Google Play is the only reliable system in existence to push software updates to Android phones in a timely manner. The other way – full OS updates – is often fraught with delays from both providers and manufacturers.

Google says its update system will apply to both phases of the Bluetooth contact tracking framework – the first API rollout, due next month, and the next phase, with the APIs built into the operating system. The companies will only say that the second phase will come “in the coming months”.

There is a huge set of Android devices that don’t take advantage of Google Play services: all Android phones in China and all Huawei phones sold around the world after restrictions are imposed by the US. Google is not allowed to export software to Huawei, which means that it cannot apply this system to its phones, just as it cannot contain Chrome or Gmail.

For those phones, Google plans to publish a framework that these companies can use to replicate the secure, anonymous tracking system developed by Google and Apple. It is then up to Huawei, Xiaomi and other Chinese manufacturers (or the Chinese government) to decide whether to use the system.

That’s the strategy Google uses for its Project Mainline update system, which was launched last year for more recent versions of Android. Project Mainline updates are explicitly open source, however. Google declined to comment on whether this system would be, but noted that it will offer code audits to companies looking to use a similar system.