The stated goal of the next version of Google’s Android operating system—4.4 “KitKat”—is “to make an amazing Android experience available for everybody.”
What does that mean? It is odd and cryptic … and the only thing we officially know about what Google is going to do with KitKat. If we piece together some of the rumors swirling around what Android 4.4 will entail and combine it with what we know about how Google has been updating Android and its pertinent features over the last year, we get a pretty good idea.
It leads us to a new Android experience. What some people are calling “the Google Experience.”
Waiting For The Big Android Update
Android 4.4 KitKat is expected to be announced by the end of October. The hype cycle is beginning to hit full tilt as stream of leaks and rumors illuminate what Google will unveil the next version of Android and the flagship smartphone that will accompany it, the Nexus 5.
KitKat will be the first new named version of Android in more than a year since Jelly Bean 4.1 was introduced at Google’s I/O developer conference in the spring of 2012. Google has offered up two updates to Android since then—versions 4.2 and 4.3—that have both been rolled up in the Jelly Bean moniker. Now that Google is almost ready to unveil the “K” desert version of Android (Google normally names each new version of the operating system after sweet treats in alphabetical order), users, developers, manufacturers and consumers are expecting a lot.
The last two versions of Jelly Bean haven’t given us a ton to be excited about. The biggest feature in version 4.3 was the integration of Bluetooth Low Energy to the Android hardware specification along with OpenGL for Embedded Systems. These are good updates for app developers out there but leave much to be desired for users that are looking for a fresh coat of paint and improved user experience.
The Google Experience
In that vein, the rumor mill points towards a major feature that will change some of the fundamental usability of Android: the “Google Experience.”
The Google Experience Launcher is rumored to be a hub launcher for Google apps and widgets on Android devices. Google Experience will be a form of launcher within Android that will not be tied specifically to version 4.4 KitKat but will rather be an app through the Google Play app store that will be compatible with devices running Android back to version 2.2 Froyo.
A launcher is also known in general terms as a “skin” but the terms are not mutually exclusive. The Google Experience Launcher is rumored by the blog Android Police to be a widget that live on the Android homescreen in which Google features like Search and Google Now are heavily integrated, can read the data within the widget and update itself. A launcher would also control aspects such as app folders and homescreens (which are rumored to be infinite instead of limited to five as they are in current builds of Android).
What would Google Experience mean for Android users? Speculation is that KitKat 4.4 will enable support for lower-end Android devices. Google Experience would likely be the vehicle for that.
If you have been following the evolution of Android as an operating system, you will note that the Google has made some pretty significant changes to how Android works on a smartphone. In the past, Google used to tie almost all of the functionality of its own apps to the Android kernel. That meant developers and consumers would need a certain version of Android to get new features. Wanted the latest update to the Google Play app store (formerly Android Market)? You needed to update your Android software. How about the latest APIs and user interface in Google Maps and Navigation? Update Android. Gmail, Calendar, Talk (now Hangouts) or any other Google service? It was tied to the Android kernel.
Google changed all of that with the release of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, decoupling its own apps from the Android operating system. Instead of being tied to Android, features and APIs like Maps either stand alone as their own apps that live in the Google Play store and/or are tied to what is called Google Play Services.
Google Experience As A Front-End Extension Of Google Play Services
Google Play Services is what is known in the computing world as a “shim.” Here is the definition of a shim, from Wikipedia:
In computer programming, a shim (from shim) or shiv is a small library that transparently intercepts an API and changes the parameters passed, handles the operation itself, or redirects the operation elsewhere. Shims typically come about when the behavior of an API changes, thereby causing compatibility issues for older applications which still rely on the older functionality. In such cases, the older API can still be supported by a thin compatibility layer on top of the newer code. Web polyfills are a related concept. Shims can also be used for running programs on different software platforms than they were developed for.
In Android, Google Play Services is a stand-alone app that runs in the background. It updates itself with functionality directly from Google without the user doing anything. It downloads its own code and enacts its own functionality. For example, if there is an update to the Google Play Store or Maps, it is downloaded and implemented through Google Play Services.
If the Google Experience is really going to be a primary feature in KitKat 4.4, as the rumors say it will, then what Google is doing is giving Google Play Services a front-end user interface for Android devices.
By extension, the Google Experience can be transported back to older versions of Android. If we look at the definition of a shim in that, “the older API can still be supported by a thin compatibility layer on top of the new code” then it is possible for Google to bring just about all of the Android features and functionality that are not explicitly tied to hardware back to any phone running a previous version of Android.