Initial Thoughts on the Android 4.4 KitKat Announcement

No it’s not a joke. Not even remotely given that Sundar Pichai himself broke the news on his Google+ page with a picture of the new KitKat shaped Android statue on the famous “Android lawn”. What’s interesting is that it’s neither 5.0 nor Key Lime Pie, which now seems like it was an internal code name. For the first time, the name of the OS is not a generic dessert but a world-renowned brand.

It appears that Google and Nestle have struck a large cross-promotional deal. The 4.4 mascot is basically a large KitKat bar and in some countries, KitKat bars will sell with special packaging promoting Android and the Nexus line of devices, like the Nexus 7, thousands of which will be given away for free. There’s a new promotional website revealing “KitKat 4.4” by Nestle, similar to Google’s updated Android page. The BBC also has an excellent write-up on the new partnership that you can read at your convenience. However, below is a little behind-the-scenes excerpt:

"Keeping it confidential was paramount to Google’s strategy," acknowledges Mr Bula. "Absolutely nothing leaked."

Google Jelly Bean Google has previously used the generic name for a sweet treat rather than a specific brand The Android team also took steps to preserve the element of surprise, notifying only a “tight team” about the decision.

"We kept calling the name Key Lime Pie internally and even when we referred to it with partners," revealed Mr Lagerling.

"If we had said, ‘The K release is, by the way, secret’, then people would have racked their minds trying to work out what it was going to be."

I’m not a brand management expert, so I can’t say for sure what the implications are for both Google and Nestle, given how integral the KitKat name is to the release. I doubt Nestle will be caught up in some crazy scandal with KitKat that tarnishes the brand or that Google will be convicted for a serious privacy issue beyond what’s happened already. Regardless, their fortunes in the near-term are very much interlinked, but if everything goes smoothly, it will be a delicious deal for both parties, especially since no money exchanged hands for the campaign. 

Apart from the fact that this was a complete surprise, there are a couple of takeaways from this announcement that have interesting implications. First of all, this is not a major numbered release as expected, rather a substantial point release like Jelly Bean 4.1 was, hence the new name. I doubt Google will completely redesign Android like iOS 7, but I expect some subtle visual enhancements. They will also continue with their under-the-hood performance upgrades. However, the main push in this area will likely be to continue to decouple API services from the core OS and update them independently via Google Play Services, thus giving more control of Android back to Mountain View. A recent example is the stock Android keyboard entering the Play Store as a downloadable app.

The most interesting tidbit from this announcement is the 4.4 KitKat tagline: 

It’s our goal with Android KitKat to make an amazing Android experience available for everybody.

There were several rumors that the next version of Android would have better support for lower-end cheaper and less powerful devices. In emerging markets like India, companies like Micromax and Karbonn are leaders in the cheap Android device market, but they usually are running an older version of the OS, in some cases even 2.3 Gingerbread. 

Having the latest and greatest software running smoothly on such smartphones without any key features and services being missing due to the new Google Play Services enhancements would be a big win for Android. It would encourage the Micromaxes of the world to adopt software updates quicker than Samsung or HTC who don’t have as much incentive to do so since they skin their versions of the OS to oblivion and have even stopped mentioning the term ‘Android’ during their more recent product launches. Depending on how successful this adoption will be, Android could pip Apple’s attempts at attracting “the next billion users” to the post with the alleged iPhone 5C. Nokia’s Lumia devices like the 520, 620 and the 720 are lower cost and have already launched but I’m not sure how well they are doing.

As far as KitKat’s release goes, I think that we’ll see it in the beginning of Q4 2013, likely the first half of October if history is any indication. Although it is going to be a point release, the changes will be enough to warrant a new device, which is due at that time anyway. It seems Google accidentally leaked the supposed “Nexus 5” in a promotional video for 4.4 KitKat. The video has since been taken down, but The Verge saved and reposted it in a separate article.

I am extremely pumped for 4.4 KitKat and the next Nexus phone. Matias Duarte did say that he felt that Android was only a third done when 4.2 Jelly Bean was a month from public release and while KitKat is going to be a substantial point release, it’s apparently far from the complete package Duarte and co. envision. At worst, Android is on par with iOS now at 4.3 and considering where Duarte’s roadmap still has to go, regardless of the advantages and disadvantages each has depending on your perspective, that’s awesomely scary for Android’s future potential, even though it’s relatively mature already.