Android KitKat (4.4) is all about “connecting the next billion users”. That’s a lofty ideal from Google, and the fact that the new version of the OS has a vastly slimmed down memory footprint should not be underestimated. That Android can now run comfortably on 512MB of RAM is critical to extending Google’s reach beyond a hundred-million or eight devices. In fact, it’s easy to argue that this is the most important feature of the OS (ignore all the other bells and whistles). Look out below, Nokia Microsoft Asha and BlackBerry!
But hidden in plain sight is a feature that’s downright scary.
While developing KitKat, Google made a very interesting decision: rather than graft a few new search UI pieces onto the home screen, Google threw the existing home app in the trash and turned all home screen functionality over to the Google Search app.
This decision — for Google search to be the home screen — has profound implications. Features like app indexing become possible — where the walls around app silos are broken down. The phone dialler (and incoming call screen) run Google searches for the phone number and contact information. It’s Google Now. Integrated. And everywhere. Everything is a Google search.
And everywhere a Google search runs is a potential place for Google ads, no? Google’s told ArsTechnica that they’re “not working on ads in the dialler”. That could be completely accurate. But what’s to say they’re not going to work on that in the future? (In 2005, Google promised that banner ads would never come to web search – never mind that this type of promise is completely irresponsible… Fast-forward eight years.)
And Google’s made this change in a far more subtle way than Facebook did with its “Home” skin.
But this is not just about KitKat. This is about a fundamental change in how Google sees itself as part of Android. Also from Ars: “this means Google Home (more accurately, Google Search Home) will be in the Play Store. Google Home is the Google Search app, which is already in the Play Store, it’s just an old version. Soon, you’ll hit the update button and have 99 percent of the code for Google Home. Google Home doesn’t even require KitKat.”
The problem of course is that the average Android user (99% of ‘em) does not understand this, nor do they grasp the privacy implications. (Of course, you can turn off Google Now completely, but the phone then becomes far less useful. That said, how many users are sophisticated enough to do that?)
Some predicted a Google Now home screen back when Now was launched. It seemed somewhat appealing then, until one’s actually had time to consider and understand the privacy implications.
It’s a massive problem for OEMs who offer Android phones, too. Most offer some sort of skin atop the base Android experience (Samsung TouchWiz, HTC Sense). What does this mean now, with Google search front and centre on the home screen? What about the Chinese OEMs who have typically hidden (or hardly enabled) Google services on their Android devices? The play-out of this tension is going to be interesting to watch.
This is about Google now (as opposed to Now!) having a deep, almost sentient, understanding of every user. It knows everything we do on our phone, right down to the app level. It’ll know which of your contacts you engage with most frequently and how you engage with them. It knows where you are, where you’ve come from, and where you’re going. And on new devices (for now, the Nexus 5), Google is always listening (this is somehow being sold as a ‘feature’?!). Marry that with all the data it has on our ‘traditional’ web usage. Searches, videos, likes, e-mail, documents and files…
Count me out.