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Google launches 'KitKat' software, sweetens features on range of phones

By Alexei Oreskovic

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Google Inc on Thursday unveiled the newest version of its Android smartphone software, aiming to allow more smartphone users access to its evolving menu of online services such as driving directions voice-activated search.

The new "KitKat" version of Android will be able to run on inexpensive, low-end smartphones as well as the most advanced devices, Sundar Pichai, Google Senior Vice President of Android, Chrome and Apps said at a press event in San Francisco on Thursday.

"Now you have one version of the operating system which will run across all versions of Android smartphones," Pichai said, noting that smartphones sold in "emerging markets" often come loaded with older versions of Android, that lack many key features and capabilities.

The move could help Google ensure that more users have access to the growing selection of profitable online services. It also could make the Android software more attractive to third-party app developers, who have been frustrated by what they call the "fragmented" nature of Android devices.

Google's Android software runs on 80 percent of the world's smartphones, according to industry analysts. But many of the Android devices sold use older versions of the software, which are not compatible with many new features.

Many developers still build apps intended for Apple Inc's iPhone and iPad first, said BGC Partners analyst Colin Gillis.

"You want your users to be using your services, and KitKat will help foster that," said Gillis.

Roughly 29 percent of the Android smartphones in operation as of October 2 feature the "Gingerbread" version of the operating system. Introduced in December 2010, that version of Android relies on an older Web browser and does not support Google Now, a sort of personal digital assistant technology that automatically provides relevant information about a user's personal calendar, weather and travel plans.

The new KitKat version of Android integrates Google search technology directly into the phone in various ways. The phone's contact list allows users to find phone numbers of their personal acquaintances as well as of local businesses, such as restaurants and dry cleaners.

Google also showed off a new feature that will allow smartphone users to find information by searching pages on the Web as well as information within the apps they have loaded on their phones. A search for a particular chocolate cookie recipe, for example, could yield results from a cooking app.

Google also showed off the new Nexus 5 smartphone which will be the first device to feature the KitKat software. The phone, built by LG, will be available in 10 countries starting Thursday without a contract for $349.

(Reporting by Alexei Oreskovic; Editing by David Gregorio)

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