Google's KitKat gives Mozilla, Nokia a scare

Google has paid extra attention to Android's performance on low-cost smartphones when developing version 4.4 of the OS, which could be good news for consumers and developers but a problem for competitors like Mozilla and Nokia.

Most of the growth in the smartphone market is expected to come from the low-cost segment in coming years, and OSes are being developed to better serve this demand.

As part of Android 4.4 -- dubbed KitKat -- Google kicked off "Project Svelte," an effort to reduce the memory needs of Android so it can "run comfortably" on entry-level smartphones that have as little as 512MB RAM. This means the next billion smartphone users will be able to enjoy the best that Android has to offer, Google said on Thursday.

"The low end is an area where Android is doing well already, but there is no doubt that the experience on some of the very cheapest Android devices is sub-standard. So this is a significant announcement by Google," said Pete Cunningham, principal analyst at Canalys.

"Bringing the memory requirements down is a significant step," said Geoff Blaber, vice president of research for the Americas at CCS Insight. RAM, rather than a smartphone's processor, is the more critical issue when taking the latest OS releases down to lower-end hardware, he added.

Even though Android dominates the low-end, it has benefited vendors like Nokia and Mozilla that cheaper Android-based smartphones are using older versions of the OS, especially version 2.3 or Gingerbread. Mozilla's nascent Firefox OS was developed with low-cost smartphones in mind and the same goes for Nokia's Asha range. If "Project Svelte" becomes a success, competing with Android will become even more difficult in that segment.

"If Google can genuinely bring KitKat quickly down to address lower price points it would have a huge impact. It would be a boon for Google; it would be a boon for developers; and it would be very good news for consumers," Blaber said.

However, doing this isn't a small task, and the proof will come first when real products arrive, according to Blaber.

Developers will also have to contribute and develop apps that just like the OS are optimized for devices with less RAM. Google is hoping they will use a new API (application programming interface) that lets them tune an app's behavior to match the device's memory configuration. Developers can modify or disable large-memory features as needed, depending on the use cases they want to support on entry-level devices, it said.

The hoped-for payoff for developers is less fragmentation, which would make it easier for them to develop applications that can be installed by more users.

Shipments of sub-$250 smartphones are expected to grow from 259 million in 2013 to 788 million in 2018, according to ABI Research. They will account for 46 percent of overall shipments, compared to 28 percent in 2012, it said.

Nokia and Mozilla didn't reply to questions about the Android 4.4 launch.

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