Google’s release of Android 4.4 (“KitKat”), featuring a lower 512MB memory requirement, should make Android more viable on the low end, helping to ward off mobile Linux upstarts like Firefox OS and Tizen. The smaller footprint will also encourage developers to design Android into a broader range of consumer devices and other embedded applications.
Android 4.4 offers more significant changes than we’ve seen in recent releases, justifying a name change from Jelly Bean to KitKat. Despite appearing on a high-end Nexus 5 smartphone, Google has also overhauled Android 4.4’s memory handling to better work on lower-end devices. Google has streamlined “every major component” to reduce memory overhead and has introduced new APIs for building more memory-efficient applications.
KitKat phone and tablet homescreens
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All these “Project Svelte” improvements help Android “run fast, smooth, and responsively” on devices with as little as 512MB of RAM, claims Google. The new capabilities represent a warning shot to Microsoft’s Nokia, Samsung’s Tizen, Mozilla’s Firefox OS, and other contenders that Google will fight hard for the immense emerging nation market. KitKat also makes Android more compelling on embedded devices (see farther below for analysis).
Some of the new “Project Svelte” tools and APIs designed to reduce Android 4.4’s footprint and improve low-end performance include:
- Dalvik JIT code cache tuning
- Kernel samepage merging (KSM)
- Swap to zRAM
- New config options for tuning out-of-memory levels for processes, setting graphics cache sizes, controlling memory reclaim, etc.
- Core system processes trimmed to use less heap
- More aggressive protection of system memory from RAM-hungry apps
- Serial launch of multiple services to avoid peak memory demands
- New ActivityManager.isLowRamDevice() API for tuning app behavior to match device’s memory configuration, enabling disable of large-memory features on entry-level devices
- New procstats tool for detailing memory use over time
- Enhanced meminfo tool for better identification of memory trends and issues, including memory overhead that hasn’t previously been visible
- Hardware sensor batching for reducing power consumption by batching input from multiple sensors
Beyond the new Project Svelte enhancements, Android 4.4 adds a variety of new features that are collectively more significant than those of recent releases. Major new components include a printing framework that make it easier to print over WiFi or cloud-hosted services like Google Cloud Print. In addition, Android 4.4 now offers a storage access framework that provides a consistent, standard UI for users to browse files and access recent files, among other features.
Despite a slow rollout for Google Wallet, Google is once again trying to boost NFC use for transactions. Android now supports secure NFC-based transactions through Host Card Emulation (HCE), enabling apps to emulate an NFC smart card without requiring a secure element chip.
New step detector and step counter features offer built-in fitness tracking, and SMS and MMS handling has been enhanced with a shared SMS provider and other tools. On the UI level, a new immersive mode makes for less distracting ebook reading, and a transition framework expands the potential for animations and special transition effects. Android also adds a screen recording feature for onscreen tutorials and walkthroughs.
Developer-oriented improvements include performance tuning in the RenderScript runtime, as well as a new C++ API in the Android Native Development Kit (NDK) that enables RenderScript operation from native code. Other enhancements include an upgrade of SurfaceFlinger from OpenGL ES 1.0 to version 2.0, new Bluetooth profiles, better IR blaster support, and accessibility features including system-wide settings for closed captioning. In addition, Android 4.4 updates its SELinux configuration from “permissive” to “enforcing” and adds support for more cryptographic algorithms, including ECDSA.
See the video below for more on “What’s new in Android 4.4.”
Nexus 5 downshifts toward the mainstream
If KitKat and Project Svelte represent downward shifts by Google with Android, a similar strategy can be see in its initial moves with Motorola. This summer’s Moto X phones were not the high-powered Galaxy and iPhone killers many were expecting, and now a cheaper Moto G version could be unveiled as soon as Nov. 13. Google and Motorola currently seem less interested in fighting for the cutting edge than in trying out new customization strategies with the Moto X’s MotoMaker service, and even more radical smartphone modularity concepts with Motorola’s open source Project Ara.
Motorola’s Project Ara “sneak peek”
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Even the new Nexus 5 is not the cutting-edge screamer we’ve seen in the Nexus devices prior to the Nexus 4. Like the Nexus 4, the Nexus 5 is made by LG and offers an affordable price compared to most high end smartphones. Selling for just $349 for the 16GB version, unlocked, the LTE-ready Nexus 5 has already received strong reviews, including a CNET review that calls it “fast, gorgeous, and stocked with features,” and “the best unlocked phone on the market.”
Google Nexus 5, running Android 4.4 (“KitKat”)
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As usual, Google doesn’t cheap out on the processor. The Nexus 5 runs a top-of-the-line Qualcomm Snapdragon 800. Yet, the 5-inch HD display is not the brightest or the highest resolution around, and the 8-megapixel camera can’t match the high-end competition for megapixels, sensor quality, and features, says CNET. The phone is still clearly on the high end, but it’s not out to win any feature competitions.
Shrinking footprint expands Android’s reach
Assuming Android 4.4 runs as well as promised on low-end devices, it should now better compete on low end smartphone and tablets where the greatest untapped market exists. The entry-level strategy for Android should begin to make room for Google’s other Linux operating system — Chrome OS — to move to tablets, phablets, and high-end smartphones. It also positions Android for a greater role in embedded devices where memory constraints are even sharper.
Google Chromebook Pixel
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Google seems to be concerned less with Apple than with several new contenders that are also aiming at the growing market in Latin America, Africa, and some yet-untapped Asian and European countries. After years of letting Android feast on low- and mid-range buyers, Apple has finally made a few concessions to budget conscious buyers with products like the iPhone 5c. Yet, the term “budget” in Cupertino has a whole different meaning than it does in say, Caracas, and the 5c is still priced higher than many mid-range Android phones.
Microsoft may pose a more significant low-end challenge. Now that it has acquired Nokia, Redmond finally has the feature phone experience and market presence in less industrialized markets to help expand Windows Phone’s reach. Nokia has huge name recognition around the world among cellphone buyers, and the new Nokia Lumia 520 is priced to move.
Google is perhaps just as concerned with the potential for new mobile Linux OSes. If Samsung decides to put a significant marketing effort behind Tizen, it could pose trouble for other Android phones, especially in untapped Asian markets, including large segments of China. The dilemma for Samsung is that it’s already a major player in the budget Android market, as well as the leader in mid- and high-end Android smartphones.
Meanwhile, Mozilla’s early successes with Firefox OS in Latin America, with the help of partners like ZTE and Alcatel, suggests that consumers may be willing to try something new. Low-cost Android phones are also available in most of these markets, but until now anyway, they have delivered poor performance on the low end.
More Android competitors: Firefox OS; Sailfish OS; Ubuntu Mobile
Firefox OS and Tizen are both centered on HTML5-based apps, which are claimed to offer better performance on a minimal footprint than native apps. App libraries based on HTML5 could also potentially ramp up far more quickly than with a new native-app platform.
Although HTML5 does not appear to be as central to Canonical’s Ubuntu for Phones plans, it’s baked into the system and ready to roll. When the first phones with pre-installed Ubuntu ship, probably a year from now, Google may well have a third contender for budget devices. Finally, Jolla’s newly Android-compatible Sailfish OS offers another potential competitor in China, as do various Chinese forks of Android itself.
Android angles toward embedded
With all this looming competition on the low end, no wonder Google has steered Android lower. Yet, it may have an even wider audience in mind. KitKat’s new 512MB footprint positions Android for an easier fit with embedded devices, including smart TVs and set-tops, appliance computers, home automation devices, smart grid equipment, and even in HMI-enabled industrial devices.
Android can now more easily compete with other embedded Linux distributions in consumer electronics and high-end embedded devices, and like Linux, it could also move to the lower end of the embedded world where Internet of Things is the buzzword and real-time operating systems (RTOSes) still hold sway. Linux has begun making headway here, and Android may not be far behind.
There are many reasons why embedded developers still prefer embedded Linux over Android, but memory overhead is one of the biggest. As Android grows more lightweight, it can move farther and deeper into the embedded ecosystem, targeting any embedded application where a multimedia touchscreen display and Internet access are needed.
The 12-minute video below from YouTube’s Android Developers Channel offers a brief introduction to “What’s New in Android 4.4.”
What’s New in Android 4.4