KitKat improves support for low-end devices, but good luck getting official updates for older phones


Google has officially launched the Nexus 5, along with Android 4.4 KitKat, the much-anticipated Android update, which replaces Jelly Bean. With this upgrade, Google introduces better support for lower-end devices with limited resources and specifications, which also improves access to the platform from devices like smart watches and Internet-connected TVs.

According to Sundar Pichai, senior VP for Android, Chrome and Apps at Google, this version of Google will bring together devices across the price and features spectrum under “one version of the operating system which will run across all versions of Android smartphones.” According to an earlier leaked document highlighting the features of KitKat, the OS “optimizes memory use in every major component” and will provide “tools to help developers create memory-efficient applications for entry-level devices.” This includes devices that have 512 megabytes of RAM and such. KitKat reportedly uses 16 percent less RAM than its predecessor, along with other optimizations that can take better advantage of even lesser hardware.

On fragmentation

An added benefit of optimizing a platform for device with limited specifications is that it reduces fragmentation. This problem has haunted Android since it rose to prominence in both the smartphone and tablet market. To date, Android runs about 81 percent of smartphones globally. However, according to Google’s latest figures, 26 percent of Android devices still run version 2.3 Gingerbread, a three year old operating system that comes with an older API set.

While adoption of Jelly Bean is on the rise, this still poses a problem for developers, who would often have to release different versions of their apps to support different Android releases. Add to this the need to optimize for different processing and graphics platforms, plus different screen sizes.

Therefore, launching the latest version support across all kinds of devices will be a boon for both users and developers. Device owners who could only afford entry-level smartphones or tablets have access to the similar features and functionality enjoyed on more expensive devices. Meanwhile, developers will have an easier time building their applications.

But how about older devices?

However, there is one catch. While Android KitKat will probably run smoothly even on devices that are a few years old, there is no assurance that manufacturers and carriers will roll out KitKat upgrades for phones several generations behind in the product cycle. For manufacturers, it makes economic sense to push out newer, better-spec’d devices every six months or so. They’re in the business of selling phones, after all. Your smartphone will likely be obsolete long before your two-year contract is up.

And before official updates for older hardware get pushed out, these usually have to undergo carrier testing and certification, at least in some markets. If you have ever wondered why even flagship devices get delayed updates, this is usually the reason.

Case in point: not even all of Google’s older Nexus devices are certified for KitKat. The two-year old Galaxy Nexus by Samsung will not get an official update, reportedly due to its use of an older Texas Instrument chipset. If a mainstream device — a Nexus at that — will not get an upgrade, then I doubt that lesser devices like the Samsung Galaxy Y and Micromax A91 that I gave my kids will get the same KitKat goodness that newer devices will enjoy.

Community efforts

Still, there is hope, and it mostly comes from the developer community in the form of unofficial updates and third-party forks. For instance, the Galaxy Nexus is getting an unofficial, custom ROM based on KitKat. We can probably expect 4.4-based ROMs from the CyanogenMod team, although developers are currently “not in a rush to get 4.4 builds out.”

The CyanogenMod team, which is known to support even older hardware in their latest releases, explains that the 512 megabyte RAM support for KitKat does not necessarily mean all older devices will be eligible for an update. “[T]his does not mean a sudden resurrection of older hardware,” says the CM post, as “there are dependencies beyond the RAM.”

With KitKat, manufacturers are likely to launch new devices based on Google’s latest OS across the price range. Now if Google will stick to this formula in the foreseeable future, then this might just be the magic bullet that will solve the problem of fragmentation.