Google introduced its new flagship Nexus 5 smartphone on Thursday, along with a new version of the Android software that's aimed at both high-end consumers and a vast audience of potential Android users in developing countries.
The new phone, designed to show off the latest version of Android known as KitKat, is sleek, light and boasts a souped-up camera and other high-end hardware. But KitKat itself has been engineered to require less memory, so it will work just as well on lower cost smartphones sold in countries like Brazil, India and Russia, according to Google executive Sundar Pichai.
Most Android phones sold in those countries now are so limited in memory that they have to run a version of the software known as Gingerbread, which was first introduced in 2010 and won't support a host of newer applications and services, he said.
While more than 1 billion Android gadgets have been activated around the world, KitKat is part of Google's strategy to reach “the next billion,” said Pichai, who is Google's senior vice president for Android and Chrome software. Google lets gadget-makers use Android without charge, because Google makes money by showing ads to consumers who use Google's online services.
The new Nexus 5 phone, manufactured by LG in partnership with Google, goes on sale Thursday in the Google Play online store and will be available in retail outlets in coming weeks, Pichai said. It's priced at $349 for a version with 16 gigabytes of memory and $399 for a 32-gigabyte version; both are unlocked, which means they come without a contract from a cellphone service provider.
Google has released a series of Nexus phones over the last five years as a way to show off its software and encourage other companies that use Android to incorporate the latest features. Other manufacturers that use Android can decide when to incorporate the latest version, and telephone service providers set their own schedule — which can include lengthy delays — in making the latest version available for older devices their customers are already using.
The Nexus 5 phone has a five-inch screen that is designed to show photos and other images across the full screen, rather than cutting them off to make room for a toolbar and other icons. Its camera has new software that detects poor lighting conditions or moving objects and takes a burst of photos that it combines to create the best image.
KitKat itself has new features that will eventually be available on other phones. It's designed to provide easier access to Google's voice-activated search service, and includes new location-based services, such as the ability to send a text that shows your location on a map.
Also on Thursday, Google showed off some improved voice recognition and other features for its Google Now service, which provides relevant information to users based on their previous web searches, locations or even reservations stored in emails.
Pichai also demonstrated a pilot program that's expanding the Google search function to search within mobile apps, as well as the wider web. The program will allow a smartphone user, for example, to search for a restaurant and see both a series of websites as well as a page within the OpenTable reservation app that has information about the restaurant.
The ability to search within apps will become part of the Google Search function on any smartphone, although it will only work with a pilot group of about ten apps to start.