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Google Crushes Dream of Android 4.4 KitKat

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While Android 4.4 KitKat promises to run on low-end devices, Google won't let it run on your "old" low-end device.

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"Android 4.4 is designed to run fast, smooth, and responsively on a much broader range of devices than ever before -- including on millions of entry-level devices around the world that have as little as 512MB RAM."

In the days leading up to last week's highly anticipated update to the Android OS, analysts and Android users alike were ecstatic to hear that Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) had designed Android 4.4 KitKat to run on low-end devices. Heralding it as a major blow in the company's fight against software fragmentation, everyone foresaw an Android dreamworld where dusty old devices bought on contract years ago would get a spit-polish directly from the company and run the latest and greatest of Google's mobile operating system. And judging from the quote above, which was sent to developers upon KitKat's release, it seemed that Android's fragmentation woes would quickly become a thing of the past.

But after noting a single caveat in its Nexus line, Google dashed those dreams almost immediately.

Soon after KitKat was announced and the latest flagship Android device, the Nexus 5, was unveiled, Google admitted that the Galaxy Nexus -- the "pure Google" device developed by Samsung (OTCMKTS:SSNLF) and released in October 2011 -- wouldn't see an official release of Android 4.4 KitKat.

On its support page, Mountain View didn't mince words as it broke the hearts of current Galaxy Nexus users:
Is Google releasing Android 4.4 as a system update for Galaxy Nexus?
No, Galaxy Nexus phones won't be receiving the update for Android 4.4 (KitKat).

Why isn't Galaxy Nexus receiving the update to Android 4.4?
Galaxy Nexus, which first launched two years ago, falls outside of the 18-month update window when Google and others traditionally update devices.
Google has long held onto an 18-month update window rule, meaning updates would be released and support made available for devices younger than a year and a half. The Nexus line of devices -- particularly the Galaxy Nexus-- was thought to be at the forefront of Android development and to be among the first (if not the first) to receive updates every time a Google launched a new OS.

But, alas, even that wasn't always the case.

The Galaxy Nexus occasionally saw updates early into a new version's lifespan, but users would have had to buy the unlocked model directly from Google. Had they gone through a carrier like AT&T (NYSE:T), Sprint (NYSE:S), or Verizon (NYSE:VZ) -- especially Verizon -- their updates would come much further down the line. Or in the case of the Verizon Galaxy Nexus, not at all: It's likely to never even see the Android 4.3 update. (It's no coincidence that the only major US carrier not to support the Nexus 5 is Big Red.)

Even with a smartphone marketed as providing the "pure Google experience" in a timely (read: immediate) fashion, Google couldn't guarantee support for its own device line. And if the Galaxy Nexus wasn't going to see an update, anything released prior to May 2012 probably wasn't going to either.

So what happened to the company's recent moves to "take back Android" (See: What Google Has in Store for Android 4.4 and The Future of Android Looks More Like Apple) and support "millions of entry-level devices around the world that have as little as 512MB RAM"?

In the harsh light following KitKat's debut, that appears to only apply to new or upcoming devices -- which include wearables like smartwatches and Google Glass -- and not devices over two years old. Older devices will still likely see updates to official Google apps that had once been exclusive to OS releases but are now updated separately within the Google Play Store. But a full-version release was simply out of the question.

However, like a petulant child who's told he can't have something, the hacker community quickly proved that the Galaxy Nexus would have no problem running Android 4.4. Despite containing a chipset that was purportedly no longer supported by Texas Instruments (NASDAQ:TXN), modders discovered updated GPU binaries that not only boost performance, but also run KitKat like a dream. There are still some bugs to be sorted out -- and they very likely will be -- but it was barely a few days before we saw the Galaxy Nexus running the latest version of Android.

Put simply, developers proved true what Google refuses to acknowledge: Low-end devices beyond that arbitrary 18-month window could still be supported. If Google wants to champion Android 4.4 KitKat as the miracle platform that runs smoothly on devices from all walks of life, it needs to put up or shut up.

Otherwise, it confirms that the company is still at the mercy of heel-dragging carriers, and the idea that it has "taken back Android" remains a dream.

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