Last week, when Google unveiled the Nexus 5 smartphone and Android 4.4 (otherwise known as KitKat), the news dominated the front page of Techmeme. I wasn’t surprised since flagship smartphone launches and official mobile OS updates always generate lots of interest around the web.
What did surprise me was the fact that Google is putting so much effort into memory optimization. That means Android 4.4 can now run on older phones and smartphones with more modest specs. The minimum memory requirement for KitKat is now 512MB. This is noteworthy in my opinion because this is the biggest step I can remember Google taking to address Android fragmentation. The details of just how fragmented the Android universe really is may vary a bit, but what’s not up for debate is that there are a heck of a lot of people using smartphones running old versions of Android. One reason getting more users on the latest version of Android makes sense is that it simplifies work for developers. They can write and test fewer versions of apps than they’ve had to in the past. Theoretically, this could translate into more smartphone and tablet apps being made for Android devices.
Let me switch gears a bit to talk about some Android history. Back in 2010, I took note when Google hired Matias Duarte from Palm. He was the guy that wowed the crowd at CES when just about everyone in the industry had written off the Palm OS. Even though it didn’t ultimately reverse Palm’s fortunes, he gave them a chance. Jelly Bean (Android 4.1) was the first Android version Google released with input from Matias. Thanks to Project Butter, the early reaction from reviewers was that Android 4.0 ran much smoother than previous versions and there was something new called Google Now.
Update from Lionel: Speaking of Matias Duarte, the folks at The Verge just posted a video interview with him and other key folks from Android’s dev team:
At the time, the latest version of Android I had tried was Gingerbread, which originally came out in December 2010 (and it’s still one of the most common versions of Android that people are running even today). Back then, I had written off Android as an interesting experiment that did not offer a cohesive user experience. To me, it felt like functions in Gingerbread were bolted on—it seemed that Android was a phone OS for geeks.
Still, I figured it was worth buying the original $200 Nexus 7 tablet Google introduced with Jelly Bean to see what had changed since Matias and team had been working on a new Android version. Turns out I was blown away. Android 4.1 ran smooth as I had read in the reviews. It also offered a much more seamless and integrated experience. So many parts of the new OS seemed more visual. With Jelly Bean, Android as a whole was a much more polished OS. And my favorite part was Google Now. It was amazing a year ago when they introduced it, and since then, they’ve made it better.
So, why does this matter? 1) As this plays out, it looks like Android fragmentation will finally start to improve and 2) More importantly, many customers with older or lower-end smartphones will finally get the chance at the latest Android experience that includes polished Google standard apps (Google Maps, Chrome, etc.), the Google Play Store and Google Now.
Those are all good things in my book. Even if you’re not an Android fan, more competition in the mobile space means a higher bar for iOS 7 and Windows Phone iterations.