Otherwise known as Android 4.4, the operating system will be available in the coming weeks for download onto certain top-of-the-line Android devices and Google’s new flagship phone Nexus 5, manufactured by South Korea’s LG (066570:KS). Both the phone and the new OS aim to bring to phones more of Google’s technical prowess, including the latest features of its search engine and voice-recognition capabilities.
Google unveiled the new products at a small press conference in its San Francisco office, with little of the fanfare that surrounds rival Apple’s (AAPL) annual updates to its iOS. Google Senior Vice President Sundar Pichai, who hosted the gathering, says the company’s goal was “to bring the power of Google’s smarts” to its phones.
There are a few neat tricks in the software. When users get a phone call from an unrecognized number, the phone will search the Web and identify the caller, if possible. The phone will also try to intuit what information its owner may need as part of a service called Google Now. When the owner is near Yellowstone Park, for example, the phone will search the Web to automatically present the times that the Old Faithful geyser is likely to erupt. When the user is near the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Tex., it will serve up the latest information about the location’s famous bat swarms.
Google is also extending the reach of its search engine into apps, a source of information cordoned off from the open Web. The company has struck pilot deals with 10 app makers, including Expedia (EXPE), OpenTable (OPEN), and Amazon’s (AMZN) Internet Movie Database to bring information from apps into search results. When users search their phones for information about restaurants, for example, results from the OpenTable app will appear in results. Pichai said Google would expand the number of those deals in the months ahead. “We want you to search for information and—regardless of where the information is—we bring it together in one place,” he said.
The Nexus 5 is designed primarily to showcase these new features. The phone has a 5-inch HD display, weighs a light 130 grams, and runs Qualcomm’s (QCOM) latest Snapdragon processor. As with previous Nexus phones, Google sells it unlocked (without a data plan), so the price tag is hefty: The basic model goes for $349 for, plus whatever buyers wind up paying for separate data charges. Google touted the camera on the device, which has optical image stabilization and software that compensates for poor lighting conditions—features that owners of new iPhones are already enjoying.
The phone will go on sale in Google’s Play app store in 10 countries. In the U.S., it’ll be sold by such merchants as Best Buy (BBY) and Radio Shack (RSH). The phone doesn’t work on the network of Verizon Wireless, the country’s largest carrier.
Perhaps Google’s most important mission with its new products is to solve Android’s fragmentation problem; the market is full of devices running different versions of Android developed and introduced at staggered times by different teams. Apple, which releases all its own hardware, does not have this problem, so it’s easier for developers to create one set of applications for its devices.
Pichai says KitKat does more with less and is designed to work on the basic low-memory smartphones flooding such countries as Brazil, Mexico, and Russia. “This is a cutting-edge operating system meant to run on cutting-edge smartphones, but to now take it and make it run all the way back to entry-level smartphones is quite an engineering feat,” he says.