They’re Back!

Ah, baseball… It’s back!

No, wait, come back! This isn’t a baseball post. Just taking a moment to enjoy the first Spring Training games–unwrapping the first of my Christmas presents. Sure, the games don’t really mean anything in terms of predicting how the season will go, but it’s just pleasant to have baseball back on TV and the Internet. (As I write this, the Pirates have a 2-1 lead over the Yankees: an excellent start! Meanwhile, the Red Sox are playing the first of two games against college teams. Way to pick on someone your own size, guys! Actually, it looks like they may have done just that. The game is still scoreless in the fourth inning. Go NEU!)

Sorry about that. Not a baseball post. Moving on.

Also back is Google. Remember way back in November when I talked about the KitKat release of Android and the implications of merging the Search app and the Home Screen app into a single, unified bit of spyware? No? That’s OK, I didn’t either and had to look it up. If you want to refresh your memory, the post is here (along with some Lior-baiting, for those of you who enjoy that game).

One thing that didn’t get a lot of attention at the time was that the new app wasn’t rolled into KitKat. It shipped on the Nexus 5–the first KitKat device–but when KitKat started rolling out to the other Nexus devices and the Google Play Edition phones, it came with the familiar separate Home Screen and Search apps.

Why did Google set aside its plans for wrapping its tentacles more tightly around all of those users? While it’s tempting to think that they wanted to avoid the glare of publicity this blog routinely generates, I have to admit that it’s more likely that the code just wasn’t ready. That theory gained support when Google released it to the Google Play Store under the name “Google Now Launcher”. It’s the same app–this version replaced the version that shipped on the Nexus 5–and it’s still only available for devices running stock Android KitKat (i.e. Nexus and Google Play Edition).

In the interest of SCIENCE!, I installed it on my Nexus 7. The first time I hit the Home button after the install, the device asked me which launcher to use and whether to make it the default or just use it once. I selected the new launcher and it immediately asked if it should import my app and folder icons from the original launcher. I was pleased to see that it did actually get all of the same icons–although it didn’t import my widgets–but a bit disappointed to see that it just dropped them randomly on the screen, not making any effort to import the organization.

I put the icons where I wanted them and added the missing widgets. A horrible waste of time–probably a full three minutes I’ll never get back–but at least I should only have to do it once. After that, well, it works. I can now say “OK, Google” while sitting at the home screen to get the 7’s attention. I can do voice searches and give it commands. As expected, the voice recognition isn’t perfect (case in point: it repeatedly searched for images when I said “issues”), but it mostly works. Google Now is now the leftmost page of the Home Screen. It’s the same GN we’ve seen before, probably with the API hooks that allow the NSA to listen to everything I do.

So Google has taken a small slither forward, wrapping those aforementioned tentacles around a few more users, but they’re still a long way away from grabbing all Android devices. Stay tuned; what shows up on the Samsung Galaxy S5 come April may give us some hints about how quickly Google intends to make Google Now a core part of the Android infrastructure.