In just a few weeks, if the rumours are to be believed, the latest version of Android – KitKat 4.4 – will be unveiled in all its glory.
Expectations for a seismic response from Google to Apple’s release of iOS 7 are high. And since the last Android update – 4.3 – consisted mostly of under-the-bonnet improvements, we have every right to expect fireworks from 4.4, right?
At its I/O developer conference back in May, Google did something sly and remarkable that at a stroke diminished the need for KitKat 4.4 to be the final word in mobile operating systems. In effect, Google snapped off the parts of the OS that can be quickly updated with new features and put them in the Play Store for everyone to download, rather than have to wait for an update to the entire operating system.
Key to all of this is Google Play Services, which is silently updated in the background. Play Services is a conduit between the operating system and the apps installed on the device – and since Google can update Services with new features at will (chances are, you won’t even know that it’s happened), there’s no reliance on hardware manufacturers or network providers.
With recent research suggesting that mobile users spend 80% of their screen time in an app (and not looking at the home screens or mobile web), those components have a serious influence on your perception of how the system looks and works.
Since the I/O conference, more and more Android interface elements and core apps are now available as stand-alone downloads from the Play Store. So if your handset is stuck on a certain point release until the manufacturer updates, you just download the bits that make your experience closer to the latest release.
It also allows Google to subtly wrest back control of the Android look – a big issue when HTC Sense and Samsung’s TouchWiz visually differ so widely from Android stock.
So it's looking increasingly like Android 4.4 KitKat won't be the radical overhaul some are expecting – and that the days of numbered Android updates bringing big changes could be... well... numbered.