There were few surprises left when Google showed off the Nexus 5, the new version of its Android flagship phone, to journalists at a press event in San Francisco Thursday. Specs, industrial design and even pricing had already been revealed through a series of surprisingly accurate leaks, leaving Google executives with the tedious task of repeating key data points, and spending notably little time talking about the device.
(For anyone keeping track at home, the device has a 5” display, a 1.3MP front-facing as well as an 8MP rear-facing camera, 2 GB of RAM and is powered by a quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor. It’s available for $349 for the 16 GB version and $399 for the 32 GB version, without contract, and launches in ten countries. In the U.S., it’s on sale on Google Play as well as at Best Buy, Radioshack, Sprint and T-Mobile. And no, it doesn’t work with Verizon.)
The real story of the event was Android 4.4 aka Kitkat, the next version of Google’s mobile operating system. Part of the work Google invested in Kitkat won’t actually matter much to anyone in the market to pick up a Nexus 5, but may very well have a big impact on Google’s bottom line. Google SVP Sundar Pichai put it this way: “For 2014, our goal is: How do we reach the next billion people.” Google’s answer to this challenge is to become more active in emerging markets like Brazil, Russia or India, he explained.
Pichai said that Android is already seeing three times as much growth in these markets than anywhere else, but that most operators ship low-end handsets that haven’t been able to run anything by Android Gingerbread, a version that Google first released three years ago. That’s why Google made Android 4.4 work with as little as 512 MB of memory. To achieve this, Google not only slimmed down the system itself, but also its own apps, and it gave developers tools to do the same.
Kitkat also has plenty of updates for users of higher-end Android devices, many of which have to do with the way people access information through their phone. The theme of unification, something that our own Kevin Tofel has been talking about a lot over the last few months, guides a lot of what Google does these days, and Kitkat is showing some first efforts to tap into a much wider variety of sources of information. The phone dialer offers access to numbers from restaurants nearby even if they are not part of a user’s phone book, and Google has started to integrate third-party cloud storage providers directly into the OS.
However, the biggest update may just be that Google search now not only incorporates content from the web, but also from installed apps. For example, a search for a restaurant may offer a direct link to OpenTable’s Android app. Selecting that search result not only opens the app, but also gets a user directly to the relevant content. “We can understand what’s in the app and deep link to that information,” said Pichai.
Google will launch this kind of app search with ten select partners, including Expedia, OpenTable, Allrecipes, Etsy and Trulia by mid-November. The underlying API will be made available to developers in the coming months, said Pichai, to eventually unify all information and have it accessible through search. Initially, the information surfaced through search will largely be similar to what’s publicly available on the web, but Android Search VP Johanna Wright confirmed when asked that the eventual goal was to also expose information that a third-party app may store locally on a device.
Apps and the web have been “two different worlds on the phone,” said Pichai. Google’s goal was to bring those two worlds together — a fitting mission for an executive who now resides over both Chrome and Android.