Google unwrapped a brand new version of its mobile software on 31 October called Android 4.4 “Kitkat”, featuring an always listening intelligent search and more.

With Android 4.4 Kitkat Google has improved Android’s performance, added new features and services, as well as integrated new software to support the potential for innovative new uses.

Android 4.4 continues the confectionary naming scheme

Since its inception, Google has used both an increasing numeric value, like Android 4.4, as well as names taken from famous confectionary.

It started with Android 1.5 “Cupcake”, and continued through the alphabet via Android 1.6 “Donut”, Android 2.0 “Eclair”, Android 2.2 “Froyo” (frozen yoghurt), Android 2.3 “Gingerbread”, Android 3.0 “Honeycomb”, Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich” and most recently Android 4.1 “Jelly Bean”.

It was long-rumoured that the follow up to Jelly Bean would be “Key Lime Pie”, however in a deal with Nestle, Google named Android 4.4 after the Kitkat chocolate biscuit.

Always listening Google Now

Google’s intelligent digital assistant and smart search, Google Now, has been given much larger prominence within Android 4.4 Kitkat, integrating an always listening feature, which will instantly respond to voice commands triggered by the phrase “OK Google”.

Instead of having to launch a separate app, your searches can be made directly from the homescreen without having to tap any buttons, just by starting your commands with “OK Google”. This always-listening feature was first introduced with Google’s smart glasses Google Glass, which is voice-activated by the phrase “OK Glass”.

Full-screen immersion

Google has taken steps with Android 4.4 Kitkat to make the experience of using apps like ebook readers or web browsers a much more immersive experience. It has changed the way the system-level interface elements are presented, including the status bar at the top of the screen and the Android menu buttons at the bottom.

Instead of permanently bracketing your screen with two black bars, the top notification bar is now transparent, allowing more of your homescreen wallpaper to shine through. The menu bar at the bottom of the screen can now also disappear when an app is put into a full-screen mode, allowing content to take up the full real estate of the screen.

Dragging your finger down from the top of the screen or up from the bottom of the screen now reveals the notification or menu bars when in full screen applications.

Support for lower-end phones

Android fragmentation has been a big problem for app developers ever since the operating system’s inception. Essentially it means that multiple versions of Android that aren’t up to date exist on various devices. While that’s not an issue in and of itself, for developers it presents a massive challenge as they have to programme their apps to support multiple versions of Android – all with differing capabilities.

Google has already taken steps towards minimising fragmentation through the decoupling of its own applications and services from the operating system into separate downloadable apps. That allows users on older versions of Android to update these apps separately through the Google Play store and gain access to the new services and features.

Now Google is taking its battle with fragmentation a step further by reducing the system requirements for Android 4.4 Kitkat. In doing this Google has made it possible to run Kitkat on much lower power devices.

Low-power sensors without battery drain

Following Apple’s lead with the iPhone 5S and its low-power M7 motion co-processor, Kitkat also features support for low power sensors using a process called “hardware sensor batching”.

Essentially, Android will now queue up sensory input to be processed in batches, which means that the central processor doesn’t need to be in a high-power state all the time to accept and process data from the phone’s sensors like the GPS, accelerometers and gyroscopes.

The end result is much improved battery life, while maintaining the data logging and sensory activities that facilitate great features like Google Now, fitness trackers and location reporting.

NFC payments enhancement

Google has also taken steps to simplify and hopefully accelerate the use of near-field communication (NFC) for payments. A significant proportion of Android phones come with an NFC chip built in, which is currently mainly used for pairing accessories and Bluetooth devices.

Now Google has baked a new feature into Android Kitkat that aims to simplify the use of NFC applications for payments called “Host Card Emulation”, which facilitates the connection between the applications and the NFC hardware within the Android device.

Google hopes that this new simplification within the Android software will help NFC payments, as well as other NFC uses gain traction.

Coming to a device near you soon

Following the announcement of the Nexus 5 smartphone and Android 4.4 Kitkat, various manufacturers announced that they would be updating their smartphones with Kitkat.

Google announced that previous Nexus devices, including the Nexus 4 smartphone and Nexus 7 and 10 tablet computers would get the update within the coming weeks.

HTC also confirmed that it would be updating its HTC One line of devices, including the new One Max phablet to Android 4.4 Kitkat, with the HTC One seeing the update within 90 days.

Other smartphone manufacturers are currently looking at the update, although it is known that the Samsung Galaxy Nexus will not get the Kitkat update.

• In October, Google launched its new flagship Android smartphone the Google Nexus 5 that provides high-end features at a more affordable price

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