Yesterday, on Halloween, Google released a new version of Android, which has been known as KitKat but is officially version 4.4. For a complete overview of all the new features in Android 4.4, read JR Raphael’s post at Computerworld.
While much of the focus of this new release will be on the improvements in memory usage, slight improvements in the UI, the updated phone dialer, and a new version of Hangouts, I think the most interesting change is with Google Now.
When Motorola, which is part of Google, launched the Moto X this past summer, we learned about a new feature known as Active Listening. The Moto X is constantly listening for you to say “Ok Google Now” and when it hears it you are prompted to enter a command or search term, just as you do with Google Now.
The question that Moto X raises is, is Active Listening a feature of Android or of Motorola? The Moto X has a separate processor dedicated to handling Active Listening, which we are told prevents it from having a huge impact on battery life. Based on the hardware dependencies, it would appear that for other Android phones to have full Active Listening it would need the same additional processing capabilities.
In Android 4.4, Active Listening is not available while the device is turned off, nor does it work while an app is running. Active Listening is available when you are on the home screen, if your phone uses the native launcher, and in Google Now, as it has always been. It remains to be seen whether Active Listening can be integrated with third party launchers, like HTC Sense that is on the HTC One.
What I think we see here is a compromise between providing some Active Listening capability, while keeping a competitive advantage for Motorola. The result in my mind raises a new question, does the Nexus 5 provide a full, pure, Google experience?
Up until now, the Google Nexus brand has been viewed as the line of products that provides “the” pure Google experience. Nexus phones and tablets run the Android UI and include apps that are developed by Google, unlike the UIs and apps provided by HTC (HTC Sense), Samsung (Touchwiz), and the carriers. Another key point about the Nexus brand is that updates to the OS came directly from Google and therefore their release is not slowed down by third parties who have to decide whether and how they are going to release the update. If you have a Nexus device you will get Android 4.4 in a matter of days from its release, while other devices probably will not get the update for several months.
Now that the Moto X exists, I think “Pure Google” really only applies to it, and the Nexus brand represents “Pure Android.” It may seem that I am mincing words, but I think it is an important distinction for the future of personal computing.
What distinguishes Real Personal Computing from legacy personal computing is the integration between hardware and software. Apple has been championing this cause since its beginning, but Microsoft has clearly adopted this point of view with the Surface tablets and buying Nokia, as has Google through its purchase of Motorola.
In my opinion, what is so significant about Moto X is that it has software dependent on specific hardware to provide a personal, you train the Moto X to recognize your voice, function. If the future of computing is to provide more functions tailored specifically to individuals, we are likely to see more hardware and software combinations in the future.