San Francisco-based Fleksy offers predictive text typing that’s so intuitive it can be used without even a glance at a screen, and now the app is finally exiting beta on Android. Fleksy works by analyzing a user’s typing pattern, no matter how sloppy, and making predictions about what keys they’re trying to hit, and it does this so well it enables even users with impaired or no vision to use a touchscreen keyboard.
Fleksy founders Kosta Eleftheriou and Ioannis Verdelis have been building Fleksy and refining it for years now, and Eleftheriou previously built an app called BlindType that offered similar functionality, which he later sold to Google in 2010. Fleksy exiting beta is a big milestone for the startup, and the company is also introducing multiple language support to the beta version of Fleksy, which will exist alongside the $3.99 full version.
“We have adjusted a lot of the gestures, user interface, tutorial, menus, as well as the algorithms themselves based on user feedback,” Verdelis explained in an interview, when asked what’s changed between when Fleksy first launched in beta and now. “We have a very active community of about 35,000 members and we engage them regularly.”
As for the multi-lingual support, that’s a key differentiator for any kind of software replacement keyboard, and Verdelis says that Fleksy can add new ones quickly and with improved accuracy versus their competitors.
“Due to our unique approach to the task of typing, we can roll out languages much quicker than others have expanded,” he said. “We will be launching four new languages in the beta program simultaneously with the Google play launch, but we have 25 languages under development in total, including Asian languages, right now.”
Aside from the Android launch and beta improvements, Fleksy is also getting closer to officially launching its iOS SDK with partners who have incorporated the software. The SDK, which we covered previously, will allow devs on Apple’s mobile platform to build Fleksy into their apps as a replacement for Apple’s own native keyboard. It’s not quite as convenient as letting the user replace their keyboard system-wide, but Apple doesn’t allow that kind of access for third-party devs, and so this workaround is the best possible solution, akin to what Google has done with Chrome on iOS.
Verdelis says that we’ll hear more about iOS and the first apps to use the SDK “soon,” so it’ll be interesting to see who they’ve signed up. The company has come a long way on the back of its existing funding of just under $4 million, and looks poised to continue its product growth quickly now that it’s out of closed beta.
Google’s Nexus 5 is not a real thing yet, but at this point it’s a foregone conclusion; Google will update its Android reference smartphone, which comes with the clean stock version of its mobile operating system, and it’ll probably do it today. Which is why it makes perfect sense that the leaks are now flying fast and furious.
The Nexus 5 will reportedly be unveiled later today, sometime around 8 AM PST according to a report from GottaBeMobile, and it’ll begin shipping tomorrow, November 1 with orders starting immediately. Whether or not it happens right at that time, the case remains that we’re probably going to see the phone today at some point, since a number of earlier reports also indicated Oct. 31 as the time for its official debut.
Google’s Nexus 5 is likely sourced from hardware partner LG, just like the Nexus 4, and it is said to have a 4.95-inch, 1080p display, with a Snapdragon 800 processor running at 2.3GHz, 2GB of RAM, 16 or 32 GB of storage, an 8 megapixel rear camera/1.3 megapixel front, and Android 4.4 KitKat. It’ll likely be the first KitKat device, which is a software update that brings a lot of refinements, along with replacing the stock SMS app with Google Hangouts now that it has SMS integration, we’re hearing.
According to one T-Mobile employee, the Nexus 5 will be available at that carrier the same day it’s announced, and will cost roughly the same as the Nexus 4 did on T-Mo last year (which is to say, at a considerable markup). Google has also updated the look and design of the Play Devices web store, prompting some to note that this could be in preparation for a Nexus 5 listing.
Google’s Nexus 5 seems like it’ll be a match for the current crop of top Android smartphones, at least on paper, and it’s a handsome device if early render and photo leaks are to be believed. Price and international availability remain the biggest question marks at this point, as well as the exact timing of availability, but we’ll be sure to bring you more as soon as we get any official info from Google.
Today Google announced details of its long-awaited Android 4.4 KitKat operating system for the first time, going beyond just the candy bar branding. KitKat is designed around three major tentpoles, Google told TechCrunch, including reaching the next billion (it previously announced 1 billion activations) Android users, putting so-called Google “smarts” across the entire mobile experience, and building for what comes next in mobile devices.
Google said that Android is growing at three times the speed of developed markets in developing countries; but the phones that are catching on in those markets are mostly running Gingerbread, a version of Android that’s now many versions out of date. These phones, however, have lower specs with only around 512MB of memory available, and Gingerbread is what’s required to fit within those tech requirements.
That presented a technical challenge Google was keen to tackle: How to build KitKat in such a way that it can bring even those older and lower-specced devices up-to-date, to help provide a consistent experience across the entire Android user base. That mean reducing OS resources, and then also modifying Google apps to stay within those boundaries, as well as rethinking how the OS manages available memory to make the most of what is present.
None of this was enough, however, so Google went further to help third-party developers also offer their content to everyone on Android, rather than just those with the top-tier devices. A new API in KitKat allows devs to determine what amount of memory a phone is working with, and serve a different version of the app to each, making it possible for the same application to run on even the earliest Android devices.
“People generally launch new versions of operating systems and they need more memory,” Android chief Sundar Pichai said at a Google event today. “Not with KitKat. We’ve taken it and made it run all the way back on entry level phones. We have one version of the OS that’ll run across all Android smartphones in 2014.”
That’s the single biggest feature being announced here: Google wants to get everyone on the same platform, and is doing more than it ever has to end the fragmentation problem. One version over the next year is a hugely ambitious goal, but if the company is serious about not only serving a growing developing market, but offering it something like software version parity, it seems like it’s finally figured out how to go about doing that. It’ll still be up to manufacturers to decide whether or not devices get the KitKat upgrade, Google notes, so we’ll probably still see a fair amount of older devices get left out via official update channels.
Here’s what’s coming with KitKat, which launched on the new Nexus 5 today.
Lock Home Screen
Aside from making KitKat the One OS To Rule Them All, Google has also introduced a number of new features with this update. Album art is displayed full screen behind the lockscreen when music is playing, for instance, and you can scrub the track without unlocking. There’s a new launcher, with translucency effects on the navigation bar and on the top notification bar.
Long-pressing a blank space on any homescreen zooms out to allow you to re-arrange them all, and when you’re running an app that is written for full-screen, the navigation bar and the notification bar both now disappear entirely from view.
Launcher-specific stuff is Nexus-only initially, of course, and whether some of these elements make their way to manufacturer-specific home screens will depend on those OEMs.
Android now offers up a new dialer, which incorporates search for easy reference. This means you can enter the name of a business even if you don’t know it’s number or have it stored in your address book, and then the dialer will retrieve it from the same database that powers Google Maps. It’s incorporating local data, as well as looking for the name used in your search. This also allows the phone to provide caller ID information for incoming calls, too, and there’s a new auto-populating favorites menu that builds a list of your most frequent dialled numbers.
Google has indeed consolidated the entire text/video/MMS experience with Hangouts, as predicted. It replaces the default messaging app, and allows you to send an SMS just as you would’ve before, to a number or to someone in your contact book. There’s also a new Places button for sharing map locations, and emoji support is finally built-in to your software keyboard.
This is the iMessage equivalent that Android has been lacking thus far. It’s going to be a tremendously useful feature, especially for those who are transitioning to Android from BlackBerry in that next 5 billion Google is adamantly pursuing.
You can now attach photos to communications not only from your local library, but also from Google Drive, and from Box, as well. Any third-party provider can provide a hook to be included, according to Google, which is impressive considering that Google isn’t limiting things to its own ecosystem.
New HDR+ software is built-in to Android KitKat, which has no apparent changes to the surface user experience – a device owner just snaps the shutter button. Behind the scenes, however, Google’s mobile OS is taking many photos at once, and fusing the best parts of each together seamlessly to come up with a better end product. Lights appear more natural, faces are visible even when backlighting threatens to overwhelm, and moving objects are more in focus.
HDR+ is Nexus 5-only to start, but Google says they’re looking to bring it to other devices later on, too.
Developers can now add printing to individual apps, and Google will work with building it out for additional manufacturers, too, something it says is “easy” to accomplish. Right now, any HP wireless printer works with the system, and any printer that already supports Google Cloud Print will also be able to take advantage of the new feature.
Search is at the core of Google’s overall product experience, the company explained, so it’s doing more to make that accessible on mobile. Search is now on every homescreen by default in Android, and it supports hotwording, so that you can just say “Okay, Google” to get search up and running at any time, much like you would on Glass.
Speech is crucial to Google with this update, and it said it was proud of its improvements so far; the error rate of speech recognition dropped 20 percent last year, and there’s been a 25 percent increase in overall speech recognition accuracy over the past few years, according to Pichai. Using voice recognition also now allows you to tap a word and bring up a list of alternatives to select from. The system also now asks more clarifying questions, using natural language, to ensure better service overall.
Google Now has been updated to be accessed via a swipe form the left side of the screen, which is a tweak from when it was accessed via swiping up in previous versions of Android. Google also focused on answering questions like “How can we help users in more ways, and bring up the most relevant content?” with this update, which means new types of cards.
Now can now figure out that The Walking Dead is a favorite show of the user, for instance, and offer up articles related to it and its progress. So not only is Google Now aware of your surroundings and schedule, but also what type of content you’re interested in. It can also note which blogs you check regularly, and provide you info about when new posts appear; in other words, Google is adding some of the features that were core parts of Google Reader to Now, and making them more contextually-aware.
It can also incorporate crowd-sourced data to make better recommendations. For instance, it could know that people often search for geyser times at Yellowstone National Park, and provide a card with those if it sees you’re in the area. If you’re near a cinema, it’ll present movie times and a link to the Fandango application for purchasing tickets.
Another example Google provided is that Stanford students, who often search for the academic calendar in fall, will now receive that data automatically when the correct season arrives, provided they’ve informed Google of their student status previously in some way. These types of Cards will roll out in mid-November, Google says.
Deep App Linking For Google Search
Now when you Google things, results can link into apps directly – and not just to the app generally, but to specific content within the app. Some results will have “Open in App X” next to them, and those will take you directly to a relevant section within, like a recipe for example. Partners at launch include Expedia, Moviefone, OpenTable and more. This is a Nexus-only feature at launch, but Google says it will be available for all KitKat devices in time.
Android 4.4 KitKat is available today via the Android Open Source Project, and it’s available on Nexus 5 hardware immediately, which also goes on sale today in 10 countries. It will also be available on Nexus 4, Nexus 7, Nexus 10, and the Google Play edition of both the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One in the coming weeks.
It’s an OS update that Google says is focused on furthering their vision for software that will run across all levels of all kinds of devices, not just on phones, which has interesting connotations give everything we’ve been hearing lately about Google wearables.
It should be clear by now that there’s much more at play in Android 4.4 KitKat than some early reports alluded to, and one of the more interesting (to me, anyway) tidbits managed to escape the early leak treatment.
Tucked away toward the tail-end of Google’s Nexus 5/KitKat presentation was a mention of a feature called App Indexing that should get companies (and the Android app developers that work for them) a little worked up. That’s because Google has developed a way to deep-link to the contents of an app from within a user’s Google search results with a feature it calls App Indexing.
Here’s how it works. Say you’re using the Google Search app to dig up some dirt on that Ender’s Game movie that doesn’t look very good. If you happen to have the IMDb app installed on your device while you search, you’ll be treated to an info card in that results stream that includes an “Open in app” button. Give it a quick tap and the IMDb app will spring to life and immediately direct you to its Ender’s Game listing.
Naturally, the feature isn’t just limited to showing off movie details — so far the full list of supporters includes Allthecooks, AllTrails, Beautylish, Etsy, Expedia, Flixster, Healthtap, IMDb, Moviefone, Newegg (yes!), OpenTable, and Trulia.
The way Google sees it, the move is all about providing these companies with a choice. If they think their mobile interfaces are enough to keep users engaged, they can simple go about their business. But if they already have an Android app (or are in the process of building one) that can do a better job of engaging with its users, a little extra work to implement those deep links may be well worth it.
It’s not hard to look at this as a move to bolster Android app development, either. There’s little doubting that Android is a global force — which may be only compounded by the fact that Android 4.4 KitKat may drive device sales in developing markets by bringing a more advanced feature set to cheap hardware — and in many cases the Google Search app is going along for the ride. That means that with any luck, huge swaths of the global Android community will be searching for stuff using the Google search app and seeing those deep-linked “Open in app” buttons when they’ve got the right apps installed. Tell me that’s not a compelling reason for a company to develop an Android app if they haven’t already.
Despite the buy-in from all those app partners, it’ll be some time before users like me will actually start getting those results in the wild. Google is testing the feature with those previously listed partners, but the updated cards that will display that information won’t actually roll out until some time in November.
When Google bought Motorola there were plenty of theories about why it wanted the mobile maker. Patents, being named chief among them. But today’s launch of the low-cost Moto G smartphone suggests the strategy was — or has certainly become — multi-faceted.
If there’s any kind of wall between Google and Motorola it’s definitely a porous one. Motorola’s Punit Soni took the stage in São Paulo to discuss what the Google-owned mobile maker was trying to achieve on the software front with the Moto G. Soni went to Motorola from Google last year, where he’s now VP of product management.
His on-stage session cheerleading the Moto G at turns resembled a strident lecture — which in turn sounded very much like Google chiding and schooling its Android OEMs on what it takes to make decent budget handsets. Subtext: stop making awful Android phones and using ‘budget price-point’ as your excuse.
“I came from [Google to Motorola],” said Soni, during the Moto G launch. “I can vouch for the fact that Android is the best mobile operating system in the world bar none. It is progressive, intuitive, it’s gorgeous and it’s very high performance. Not only that it updates itself at regular intervals; it only gets better. A device that’s built on pure Android with minor optimisations is going to have an incredibly high performance. That is the crux of our software strategy.”
Android’s low end has clearly become an embarrassment to Google, dragging the platform’s reputation down by pairing it with cheap, underpowered hardware — which inevitably results in a laggy, frustrating user experience.
Even though the huge reach of Android — which runs the gamut from high end flagships to ‘cheap as chips’ mobiles — is a strength when it comes to talking about marketshare; Google monetises the platform via its own software services. So if those services are absent because an Android OEM made too many changes to the platform, or rendered it frustratingly laggy because of bad hardware/bloated software, then it’s Google’s business that suffers.
Seen in that context, the Moto G looks very much like Google’s answer to cleaning up Android’s low end.
Soni described the current crop of Android OEMs as having a “confused” relationship with Android — because in trying to differentiate their handsets, they’re either slowing Android down with skins or duplicating Google’s own services and cluttering the user experience.
“In today’s ecosystem, mobile manufacturers have a very confused relationship with Android. They build on top of it but then they add on all these custom skins which detract from the user experience and hog resources,” he said. “Then they go and put duplicated software on top of it which basically competes with Google’s mobile services and you have a situation where you have homescreens with multiple mail apps, multiple app stores, multiple video players and music players and so on.”
“The result of all of this is you have devices with very non-intuitive, cluttered user interfaces, with apps that actually slow it down and make it worse than they need to be — the phone much slower than it needs to be. Now there has to be a better way to do this,” he added.
Soni said Motorola had focused on “complementing” rather than “competing” with Android — and singled out aspects such as the display, the battery life and the camera as areas where OEMs should absolutely be sweating to produce a decent smartphone experience for a low-end price.
“We didn’t build TouchWiz UI and Sense UI, and all of these other custom skins,” Soni said, referring to tweaked Android interfaces offered by Samsung and HTC, respectively. “We didn’t duplicate Google mobile services; we focused our energies into building things that have real value to the user. And that actually means the fundamentals. So we spent time optimising the device so that it has an extended battery life, so that it boots faster.
“We’re talking about obsessive attention to the basics. Whether it is audio, whether it is data, storage, memory, touch sensitivity, connectivity, you name it. We focused on those aspects which make the phone a joy to use. And because we did that we believe that Moto G actually punches way above its weight, in terms of performance, given its price category.”
In other words, the Moto G is basically a lesson in what it takes to make a decent Android handset for sub-$200.
TechCrunch asked Motorola Canada’s General Manager, Odile Guinot, whether or not the Moto G was a proverbial gauntlet thrown in the direction of other Android OEMs.
“We feel it’s an unserved part of the market,” she said. “It’s not like we’re the only person that can do it, it’s just that we’re the only company that wants to right now, and the only one that is doing it.”
To make this device, Google surveyed 15,000 smartphone users and focused on their priorities, among which was customization, according to Guinot. It was higher on their list than other features some might have expected to place high, including LTE support.
“That’s just not what the customers were looking for,” Guinot said of LTE. “They did not prioritize that when they talked about an affordable phone. They wanted to have a big display where they could watch their videos and view their pictures, etc. They wanted to have the latest Android.”
Do less with Android, and your devices stand a better chance of being updated to the latest version of Android, was another point made by Soni — referencing (in so many words) Android’s ongoing fragmentation problem. More evidence, if it were needed, that Motorola is acting as the mouthpiece of Google — telling Android OEMs what to do and what not do. And then hammering that lesson home by unboxing a $179 “premium” smartphone that has to potential to cut a swathe through the low-end Android pack, decimating the businesses of sub-par OEMs.
With the Moto G, Motorola is making the rare claim that devices will receive a guaranteed update to Android 4.4. Guinot told TechCrunch that carrier partners are on board with getting the update out on time, and that in fact, it’s in their best interest to do so, so they were happy to help. Google has worked with them to make sure all testing required is completed on time, she added.
“A pure Android strategy allows us to shine a light on Google services,” added Soni, continuing to sing from the Google hymn sheet. “Google has some of the best software services in the world. Whether it’s Gmail, Hangouts, YouTube, you name it; the list goes on.”
As well as taking out Android’s low-end trash, it’s possible Google also has Samsung in its sights with the Moto G. If the handset lives up to the promise of a premium experience for sub-$200 it could give consumers pause for thought about picking up another budget Samsung device that’s been compromised by a cramped, low-res screen and puny processor. Samsung’s flagships are excellent phones but the company plays at all price-points and makes more than its fair share of sub-par ‘Droids.
Motorola name-checked two Samsung devices during the Moto G presentation — the Galaxy Fame and the Galaxy S4 — the only Android OEM singled out in this way for explicit criticism, unless you count the passing reference to HTC’s Sense UI. (The other non-Android device mentioned was the iPhone 4/4S — and eating into Apple’s ‘past years’ discounted iPhones’ lunch is evidently also on Moto/Google’s mind.)
When it comes to Samsung, the Korean mobile maker’s dominance of the Android ecosystem has certainly made life tough for other Android OEMs. Motorola’s own position in handsets was looking shaky at the point when Google stepped in to buy it/save it. And today HTC continues to struggle to keep its handset business out of the drink. Bearing that in mind, doing what it can to dilute Samsung’s Android marketshare may also be on Google’s mind — as it puts Moto to work outshining the low-end competition.
That said, the Moto G may well make life harder for HTC which is apparently gearing up to shift its focus to more affordable smartphones. At $179 for a quad-core 4.5-inch device, Google-owned Motorola looks set to squeeze handset hardware profits ‘til the pips squeak. The profits it is making off of these phones might actually be in the accessories: those are traditionally high-margin, and Google has made sure to make this the most moddable phone possible, with a huge line of in-house cases, a Bluetooth headset called Buds and lots more in terms of launch accessories.
But, at the end of the day, growth in smartphones is coming from the low-end segment — as emerging markets switch from basic feature phones to smartphones. Which was a point Soni reiterated several times. And with Moto G, Google is putting Android in a plum position to “on ramp” those newcomers, and steer them away from alternatives that are offering a better experience at the low end than sub-par Androids. Notably Microsoft’s Windows Phone has been gathering some momentum in markets such as South America with its budget handsets — like the Nokia Lumia 520. They may not have access to a million apps, but the basic experience is solid — and you can’t say the same for every budget ‘Droid.
Motorola didn’t say what the ‘G’ in Moto G stands for — and it could well refer to several things. ‘G for Growth’, say, or ‘G for Global’ — with the phone set to go on sale in more than 30 countries, with 60 partners by 2014. Europe, Asia, South America and North America are all set to get their hands on this handset, with both the U.S. and Canada included in the rollout.
But really who are we kidding? This phone has been branded ‘G for Google’.
TechCrunch’s Darrell Etherington and Chris Velazco contributed to this article
Google Ejects Android ROM-Maker Cyanogen’s Installer App From Play — Citing Developer T&C Violations
Well that didn’t take long. Google has asked Cyanogen Inc. to remove its alternative Android ROM installer app from the Play store.
Cyanogen raised $7 million from Benchmark Capital back in September to turn its geek-beloved aftermarket version of Android into a mainstream flavour of the platform — with the ultimate aim of using an Android variant to compete with standard Android (and iOS) for consumers’ attention.
To kick off its mainstream market targeting effort, Cyanogen released an installer app for its CyanogenMod earlier this month — to make it easier for less tech savvy Android users to flash the ROM on their devices.
But, writing in a blog yesterday, Cyanogen said Google’s Play support team had contacted it to ask it to remove the app, citing violations of Play’s developer terms — warning that if the app wasn’t voluntarily removed it would be forcibly ejected.
So Cyanogen’s attempt to boost the popularity of its Android-based alternative to Android apparently got Google’s attention too.
At the time of writing Google had not responded to requests for comment on why it asked Cyanogen to remove its installer app.
But here’s what Cyanogen said Google told it:
Today, we were contacted by the Google Play Support team to say that our CyanogenMod Installer application is in violation of Google Play’s developer terms.
They advised us to voluntarily remove the application, or they would be forced to remove it administratively. We have complied with their wishes while we wait for a more favorable resolution.
To those unfamiliar with the application, it has a single function – to guide users to enable “ADB”, a built in development and debugging tool, and then navigates the user to the desktop installer. The desktop application then performs the installation of the CyanogenMod on their Android device.
After reaching out to the Play team, their feedback was that though application itself is harmless, since it ‘encourages users to void their warranty’, it would not be allowed to remain in the store.
Android being an open platform means users can still download and install Cyanogen Mod via a number of routes, including from Cyanogen’s own website.
However, if you’re on a mission to lower the barrier of entry to your alternative Android firmware, requiring people to seek out and sideload your software rather than stumble across an installer app sitting on the shelves of Google’s mainstream store does make that mission a lot harder — as Cyanogen’s blog post goes on to note:
Fortunately, Android is open enough that devices allow for installing applications via ‘Unknown Sources’ (ie sideload). Though it’s a hassle and adds steps to the process, this does allow us a path forward, outside of the Play Store itself.
According to Cyanogen, the installer app was downloaded “hundreds of thousands” of times in the two weeks+ it was available on Google Play, which it argues proves “the demand for more choice” — another reason Google may have started feeling uncomfortable about the installer’s presence on its store. Android may be an open platform but Google Play is very much ‘made and maintained in Mountain View’.
Cyanogen is clearly hoping to resolve the Play blip if it can. “As we work through this new hurdle, we will continue to make available and support the installation process via our own hosting services,” it added in its blog.
Why might the average Android user want to install Cyanogen Mod? It’s a way to ditch the bloatware and crapware loaded onto many Android devices by carriers, for instance, or to remove a custom Android skin — such as HTC’s Sense UI — that’s irritating or slows down the Android experience.
Custom skins also typically delay the process of getting Android updates, and can also force Android users to be stuck on older version of the platform even if their device hardware could technically handle an upgrade.
Cyanogen Mod also includes features not offered in standard Android — including native theming, an OpenVPN client, support for Wi-Fi- Bluetooth- and USB-tethering, CPU overclocking and FLAC audio codec support.
In addition, Cyanogen argues that its ROM can increase the performance and reliability of Android compared with official firmware releases.
Why might Google be nervous about Cyanogen? If an alternative Android platform was able to gain significant traction it could undermine Google’s monetisation of Android — via the services it preloads onto Android (such as Play, Maps, YouTube) — by providing an opportunity for other services to be preloaded instead (as is often the case in the Chinese market).
It could also weaken Google’s control of Android, and it could erode the attractiveness of the platform in carriers’ eyes, making them less keen to promote Android devices to their customers and in their retail stores if they can’t be sure their users won’t be saddled with their branded bloatware.