For years, Google’s critics railed that the Android operating system had a fragmentation problem, with too many manufacturers installing too many versions of the software on too many phones.
As a result, they argued, the Android ecosystem was a mess. Some customers were stuck with Android smartphones running an antiquated version of the software, with no updates in sight; others had Android devices pre-loaded with “crapware” and pointless apps. That chaos made Apple’s iOS—a software platform with a clean interface and near-universal updates—seem like a model of cohesiveness and good taste by comparison.
Google’s well aware of those criticisms, and the new Android 4.4 (also known as “KitKat,” following the company’s grand tradition of naming successive Android versions after desserts) seems an attempt to rectify at least some of them.
KitKat features tight integration with Google Now (Google’s voice-activated digital assistant), a messaging interface that consolidates everything from SMS texts to video calls into a single hub, and (in a cutesy Google touch) a host of Japanese-style Emoji to sprinkle through conversations. The software also makes it easier to access and send files via cloud services such as Google Drive, edit documents in the redesigned QuickOffice, and multitask at greater speed.
But the software’s not-so-secret weapon in the war on Apple—and the one that could possibly tackle that pesky fragmentation issue—is its ability to run on low-end devices. By tweaking the latest Android version to sip memory and minimize resource-hungry processes, Google is not only preparing its smartphone franchise for the next billion users (in its executives’ words, according to Wired), but also building a path for older Android phones to upgrade to the latest and greatest version of the software, which in turn could help ease some of the fragmentation concerns.
Google has good reason to update as many Android users to the latest version as possible. Google Now can access a trove of user data, allowing it to anticipate daily needs—for example, it will pop up “cards” showing an Amazon delivery en-route, or the amount of traffic on the morning commute. The technology is a central element in the new Moto X smartphone from Motorola, Google’s hardware subsidiary. Clearly Google sees it as an iPhone-beater, and wants it as an option for all its users; that’s as good a reason as any to eliminate fragmentation. But it remains to be seen how much of the notoriously Balkanized ecosystem actually takes Google up on KitKat’s implicit offer.