Nokia's involvement with Google's Android can only be described as one big "what if." Ahead of Microsoft's deal to buy it, Nokia was testing Android phones, but the only thing that's come from that is the Nokia X, an entry-level Android device aimed at luring feature phone owners into the smartphone era. However, it's been designed to play second-fiddle to Microsoft's Windows Phone software and Nokia's own higher-end phones. Its future is also one big question mark now that Microsoft's taken the reins.
Nokia's newly-spun-off technologies group — which has long run separately from the phone business, but has provided it with software and hardware features over the years — is now its own startup. And its first new project since the Microsoft-Nokia deal closed is a homescreen launcher for Android phones called Z Launcher. It's been designed not only as the primary way people find apps and contacts, but also a demo of what the team can do now that it's no longer tied to other parts of the company.
Nokia wants to be the first thing you see
The idea behind Z Launcher, which is named after a gesture that lets you write out letters right on the screen instead of typing on a keyboard, is to give you a running list of apps and contacts that changes based on where you are and what you're doing. You can also scribble out a letter in the middle of your homescreen to search what's installed on your phone, or things on the internet through Google suggest.
At its core, the app is just a very simple and uninteresting list of app names and their icons that sit on your homescreen, with a clock and calendar that sit on the top. Google's standard row of apps stay the same on the bottom, which Nokia's augmented with a list of apps you can scroll through in alphabetical order. Missing currently are any support for widgets — including Google's search bar — but it might not be like that forever.
Brook Eaton, the lead product manager of Nokia's emerging platforms group says the idea for Z Launcher stemmed from the company's research. Nokia was tracking an increase in the number of apps people were using and saw a potential organization problem his group could solve. Instead of going after folders, Nokia went after the first thing people see when they unlock their phone — the homescreen.
Those choices for which six apps or contacts get shown at any given time are made using a number of attributes. That includes what time of day it is, where you are using your phone's location, and who you've been talking to based on your phone's call logs. Over time the app is also able to better guess what you do based on your usage history, Eaton promises. But if it can't, you can just start writing right on the screen to pull up what you want. Behind the scenes, the company's using MyScript for the handwriting recognition. You can jot one or more letters, either at once or in succession, and remove whatever you've written with a back swipe.
Start writing on your screen to search
On a Nexus 5 I tested a "pre-beta" version of the software on, the handwriting recognition worked well, as long as you kept it short. It handled one and two letter scribbles just fine, but the error rate went up when pushing it to three or four letters. Eaton says that the system's been designed so that you're very rarely writing more than one letter, especially once the system begins learning which apps you're using on a regular basis.
All this usage information is being kept private and on the device, at least for now. The main goal, Eaton says, is to get the product out there and make it better as what the company views as a big beta test; that's in part because Z Launcher won't work with all phones. From the outset, it will work on Samsung's Galaxy devices like the S4 and S5, as well as Google Nexus devices, like the Nexus 5. Nokia also isn't putting it somewhere like Google's Play Store just yet; people will need to download and install it from Nokia's Z Launcher site.
Nokia could also bring Z Launcher over to iOS, though Apple's system does not yet allow third-party apps to change the look and feel of the homescreen. Eaton said the company is at least "looking at" iOS as a possibility, but did not offer what such an app would look like, or how it would function. Future plans may also involve sniffing for recognized Wi-Fi networks to personalize suggestions for apps — something like linking up with a networked sound system like Sonos, or a video streaming app when you're at home.
Z Launcher joins a host of other app launchers, that have been around for longer, and arguably do more. Eaton and company are making no claims of doing more than Yahoo's Aviate, Cover, or EverythingMe, but says that it can hone and add to Z Launcher over time. Moreover, he says it's just the first of what will hopefully be many new consumer-facing projects that may never have seen the light of day under Nokia's previous structure.
"At the end of the day, we're now able to explore new ways to get to market, which we didn't have to first deliver in house," Eaton says. "We're unhandcuffed."
Update June 20th, 5:09PM: Nokia's closed up the "pre-beta" of Z Launcher for now. The company has not said whether it will open it up again ahead of a broader release.