October's shaping up to be an epic month for gadget fans, with Google reportedly planning to unleash the latest cut of Android - 4.4 KitKat – the week before Apple unveils the new iPad and iPad Mini. If the latest rumours are to be believed, we're now only days from the launch.
Here’s what we know about the imminent update to earth's most popular mobile OS, and also what we’d like to see from Android’s response to iOS 7. We’re keeping this page bang up to date with KitKat 4.4 news as it happens.
WHY THE KITKAT NAME?
As you know, Google names each iteration of Android after a different confectionary - from Cupcake through to today’s Jelly Bean. For months, we were lead to believe that the next Android release would be called Key Lime Pie, and that we would see it before the end of 2013. Key Lime Pie would mark a serious jump in Android point releases, taking us from today’s 4.3 straight through to 5.0.
So when Google proudly announced that the next big release would be 4.4 and called KitKat, there’s was excitement, confusion... and some sniggering from the back rows.
It turns out that Google’s choice of the KitKat name is more than an affection nod to the chocalate bar; the two companies are using the Android launch to promote each others' wares. You’ve probably already seen Nestlé’s affectionate video, released almost immediately after the KitKat unveiling.
We’re told that no money changed hands between Google and Nestlé in choosing the name, but the scale of the you-scratch-my-back promotion is formidable - we’ll call our world-famous operating system after your chocolate bar, and in return you promote our funky OS through your massive distribution and advertising network.
WHAT CAN YOU EXPECT?
UPDATE 12.10 KitKat may have a launcher that you can use on your Samsung or HTC, turning the interface into vanilla Android in place of TouchWiz or Sense.
The team over at Android Police have been studying the KitKat log file leaked tomyce. In the files, they've found reference to an apk called com.google.android.gel - with 'gel' standing for Google Experince Launcher. The formatting of the apk file name is the same as that used for previously system-only Android apps that were released to the Play Store earlier this year (Calendar, for example), fuelling a theory that the Google Experience Launcher may be freely available to download.
We've included an image showing the Google Experience Launcher prompt screen, although Artem Russakovski at Android Police is careful to point that it is a mock-up designed to protect sources: "Rather than not posting any visuals at all, we opted for mockup images of Google Experience, masterfully designed by our own Liam Spradlin. They paint a relatively accurate picture, but may be off on some details (whether purposely or not)."
The theory bring a whole new meaning to the strapline being used on the KitKat promo site - ‘it’s for everybody’.
UPDATE 11.10 KitKat will launch on October 15, apparently according to developers at a Google event this week. The only thing confusing the hell out of us is the absence of any invites to a launch (usual form in the tech business, especially for something as significant as this). Also leaked this week were screenshots showing an overhaul of the location access screens in settings.
KitKat leaks to date have consisted of short, badly shot boot and lock screen videos in a pub (complete with background expletives) along with an accidentally released keyboard screenshot. There’s also been a build of KitKat - KRS74D - identified in a Chrome bug tracker site, spotted exclusively by myce.
The log file from that build all but confirms the Nexus 5 running KitKat 4.4, showing that the handset has a 443ppi, 1920x1080 screen, and will support wireless charging. And mysteriously, screenshots also show two totally brand new Google icons in the menu bar.
In the last few weeks, a few credible screenshots have emerged of the messaging app and dialer, along with a whole bunch of screenshots showing that Settings now have new subsections for printing and payments. The latter infers that the ability to pay for stuff will now be baked into the OS, which will be nice. The lucky author claims that KitKat is only a light evolution from JellyBean in terms of design, but that animations are smoother. The leaked OS also has more Google apps in the default install - including Keep, Drive and QuickOffice (all of which you can of course download from Google Play now...).
We can also make some educated guesses. Google's open approach to customisation of Android by handset manufacturers has enabled the system to grow in popularity at an awesome pace. But it has also led to fragmentation - just look at the number of today’s superstar Android handsets packing different point releases of the OS (so while the Nexus 4 is on the latest-and-greatest 4.3, the magnificent HTC One and even the newer Sony Xperia Z1 are stuck on 4.2.2).
One theory is that 4.4 will be easier for the world’s handset manufacturers to integrate into their own road maps by offering broader firmware compatibility - so older handsets will be able to upgrade, and you’ll get faster updates on newer models.
This compliments chatter at Google I/O earlier this year that future Android releases would be less dramatic. Instead of trying to coax (or force) manufacturers into keeping pace with their release schedule, Google would instead ‘snap off’ key OS components and apps, and update them often through the Play Store. But more on that later...
You can also be fairly sure that 4.4 will mark updates to Android’s stock theme. Only last week, a screenshot illustrating the Google Korean IME keyboard on Google Play showed a new white and grey theme to its icons (the screenshots have since been replaced by today’s cyan blue Holo theme).
Since that leak, we’ve also seen the aforementioned messaging and dialer screens. These seem to suggest that Android’s notifications bar will be skinnable to suit the open application (so the battery and radio icons turn to green in messaging, or blue in the new dialer).
Lastly, Google very recently updated the Android GMail app. We could be reading way too much into this, but the update features an even more minimal interface, with a card style to the conversation view that's losely reminiscent of Google Now. Is this to bring it into line with KitKat interface changes?
WHAT WOULD WE LIKE?
In so many ways, Android still has iOS 7 beaten.
Widgets? Android. Actionable notifications (for example, reply to an email)? Android. Expandable storage? Android. Multi-tasking that lets you see between five and nine screens at a time? Android. Multiple user accounts? You guessed it.
But although iOS 7 may have split opinions in the Apple camp, it would be foolish for Google to think that it didn’t need to accelerate the arms race. So here are some the features we’d love to see in KitKat 4.4...
MERGE GOOGLE NOW WITH THE NOTIFICATIONS SCREEN
Google Now is discreetly becoming Skynet. In recent months, the service that mashes traditional search with prediction has gained even greater brain power - for US users, it will scan your email to spot when you’re travelling, and what you’ve bought, and begin pushing ‘useful’ info to help you before you know that you need helping.
Although this can be eerie, Now’s predictive skills are beginning to master the party trick that’s the dream of every search engineer: have the information you need when you need it, with zero effort on your part.
Google Now is already integrated with Android’s swipe-down notifications screen. But we’d love to see it go one step further - find a way to show those Google Now cards within that screen’s real estate. Now that would be useful...
BUILD THE MOTO X VOICE ACTIVATION SYSTEM INTO ANDROID CORE
‘OK, Google Now - wake me up in 20 minutes…’.
The US-only, midrange Motorola Moto X phone boasts a new twist on voice activation that - sadly - is unique to it right now. The X is ‘always’ listening - you can wake it by saying ‘OK, Google Now…’, then give it an order, or ask a tricky question. We understand that it’s a major selling point for the Moto X, but we’d struggle to believe that Google doesn’t have the service running on an Android core somewhere in a test lab.
MAKE THE INTERFACE EVEN PRETTIER
It’s easy to forget that Android was the iOS’s ugly cousin only a few years ago. Jelly Bean was the first release to give the OS a truly handsome skin and smooth animations. And prior to the release of Android’s Holo design guidelines, many Play Store apps were ragged compared to their App Store counterparts.
But with the launch of iOS 7, it’s time that Android took the next leap in visual refinement. We’e already seen a few supposed leaks that shows a re-theming for 4.4, with everything from the the cyan of Holo apparently replaced by grey and white, through to a completely redesigned dialling screen.
WHEN DO I GET IT?
Nexus phones traditionally launch in November. So don’t be surprised if you’re pre-ordering your Nexus 5 in late October for delivery early or mid-November. We refuse to believe that it will be much later than this, especially given that the Nexus 4 16GB is now showing as out of stock in the Play Store. And arguably Google has a window in which to launch a serious response to the iPhone 5S.
Samsung, HTC and LG owners will know that the promise of a November launch may not apply to them. 4.2.2, for example, was officially released by Google on February 11, 2013 - it didn’t reach the HTC One until mid-to-late April.
UPDATE 16.10 KitKat's official Twitter account is releasing music-themed cryptic messages. The first message is "Everybody dance now" and so far its most recent Tweet is "This is it". Pocket Lint's Luke Edwards believes that these messages point to a 28 October release date for the Nexus 5 and Android 4.4.
'Everybody dance now' refers to the song Gonna Make You Sweat by C+C Music Factory, who were originally called The 28th Street Crew. 'This Is It' is the title of a documentary based on Michael Jackson, which was released on 28 October. . You don't need to wear a in tin foil to see the obvious connections there...
UPDATE 06.10 A rather legitimate-looing service manual for the new LG Nexus 5 has leaked. If it's real, the Nexus 5 has a 4.95in 1080p screen, a Snapdragon 800 processor running at 2.3GHz, a 2300mAh battery, and 2GB RAM. There are also references to both 16GB and 32GB storage capacities.
UPDATE 03.10Latest rumours suggest that October 14 looks like the official announcement date, with the device shipping in the UK in late October. The same sources also suggest that the Nexus 5 could cost as little as £275, and be available with various on-board storage options, right up to 64GB. And if this snapshot is anything to go by, it may also coincide with the launch of an Asus-made Nexus 10 tablet.
Is Android overdue a revolutionary overhaul, or would you be delighted with a few cheeky tweaks? Are you just thrilled by the thought of a stand-alone Google Experience Launcher - or will you stick with TouchWiz or Sense?
Let us know what you want from KitKat 4.4 in the comments below.