When Google unveiled its new flagship Nexus 5 smartphone and the latest version of the Android mobile operating system last Thursday, the phone got the most initial attention from the tech world -- not surprisingly -- but a close look at Android KitKat 4.4 reveals more about the search giant's future strategy in the mobile arena.
Earlier this year, Google announced its 1 billionth Android activation, but is looking forward, not back.
"For 2014, our goal is, how do we reach the next billion people?" Google's Android head Sundar Pichai said at the unveiling in San Francisco.
He then made the answer clear: It's not by doing business in developed countries in North America, Europe and Asia where smartphone penetration is nearing 100 percent. Google's eyes, he said, are elsewhere.
"Smartphone penetration is less than 5 percent in emerging markets," he said.
Those markets are Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia and Mexico -- important enough that internally Google has graced them with their own acronym BRIIM -- where Google is doing land-office business and Android use is growing at three times the rate of its adoption in developed countries.
However, users in those countries are likely running earlier versions of Android, like Gingerbread 2.3, because the smartphones they can afford generally don't have enough memory to handle newer operating systems.
Enter KitKat 4.4, written to only require 512 megabytes of memory, well within the hardware specifications of even low-end smartphones, the manufacturers of which keep costs down by not splurging on gigabytes of memory.
Google's Chrome browser built into KitKat will, for example, use 16 percent less memory than it needed in the previous Jelly Bean version of Android, Pindar said.
Lower memory requirements will mean Android smartphone manufacturers can install the latest operating system in units destined for emerging economies, and allow users in those countries to upgrade their existing devices to KitKat with no loss in speed, he said.
"On the journey to reach the next billion people we need to make sure they are all on the same operating system," Pichai said.
That was a reference to one of Android's main problems, known as fragmentation, caused by wireless providers all tweaking and modifying Android o entice customers to their devices rather than those of competitors.
The result is phones that all work a little bit differently, with different bells and whistles and add-ons, which means whenever Google releases a new version of Android, it is incompatible with many phones until carriers retweak the new version to work on their offerings.
For that reason nearly half of all smartphones have yet to be upgraded to even Android Jelly Bean 4.1, released two years ago.
KitKat's memory-friendly design is intended to give smartphone manufacturers, from those making top-of-the-line model to those offering low-cost handsets, the choice to ship only one version of Android by 2014.
"To make KitKat work on an entry-level smartphone. ... That makes a big difference," Pindar said.
KitKat will come installed on the Nexus 5, and Google's Nexus 4 smartphone and its Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 tablets will receive the upgrade in the next few weeks. When other smartphones get the upgrade will be up to each wireless carrier.
Another billion Android users is a big target, but Google clearly thinks -- and is willing to say -- that KitKat is a major tool intended to help reach that goal.