Android 2.3 Gingerbread has become Google's Windows XP: the very popular but outdated OS version that just won't go away. Lots of older smartphones run Gingerbread, which debuted in December 2010, but unlike many older PCs that can be upgraded from Windows XP to Windows 7, most Gingerbread-era smartphones can't run either of the Android 4 versions (Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean). Their hardware isn't capable enough. By contrast, Apple's iPhone 4 and iPad 2 from the same era can run today's iOS 7, though a bit slowly and with some capabilities removed, such as Siri support and home-screen background effects.
Android 4.4 KitKat, unveiled last Thursday, is supposed to bring these older phones into the modern Android world. Google said that goal was the big rationale for KitKat, in fact. After all, Gingerbread can't run many newer Android apps -- including, not so coincidentally, Google's own data-mining apps like Google Now on which its business is based.
The problem is that KitKat won't in practice bring most older Android smartphones into the modern Android world, partly for reasons outside Google's control.
The big change in KitKat to allow it to run on Android smartphones stuck with Gingerbread is that its memory footprint and application set have been shrunk and restructured so that KitKat can run in devices that have as little as 512MB of RAM. Furthermore, Google took many core components of Android and now delivers them as separately upgradable components in KitKat. That way, future OS upgrades will be less cumbersome for carriers to deliver to end-users.
In the Android world, Google has no ability to make OS updates available to users -- that's up to each carrier, which have a poor track record of updating users' devices. One reason is economics: In the United States, carriers like to keep their customers locked into service contracts, so they tend to dangle new smartphones toward that goal. Providing timely upgrades would lessen customers' incentives, while testing and distributing those upgrades on the wide range of older Android models would cost those carriers money. Outside the United States, where phones are rarely subsidized, the economics favor keeping operational costs low, which again leads to avoiding the cost of handling OS update testing and distribution for old devices. The bottom line: There's little incentive for carriers to deploy KitKat to those Gingerbread smartphones. Likewise, there's no incentive for Android device makers to test KitKat on those old devices, much less update their proprietary OS extensions to be compatible with it.
Some users might install the new KitKat anyhow using a third-party service like CyanogenMod (technically a hack that kills your warranty, but these phones are typically out of warranty anyhow). But these users may find they didn't get much for their troubles. As Cyanogen itself has pointed out, "[KitKat] does not mean a sudden resurrection of older hardware, [since] there are dependencies beyond the RAM." In other words, Google's slimdown approach doesn't address all the hardware issues that keep some smartphones stuck on Gingerbread.
Over time, those Gingerbread smartphones will get retired as they fail or as customers feel left too far behind, forcing them to get new devices. But right now, it's a bad idea to look at KitKat as a silver bullet to make these old smartphones do what new ones can.
This story, "Why KitKat can't help older Android hardware," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.