As Moto G gets KitKat, Motorola becomes a Nexus-maker for the masses

It used to be that if you wanted an Android(s goog) phone that would be among the first to get the newest version of Android software, there was a single option: a Nexus device. I think it’s safe to say there’s a solid second option with Motorola’s phone line as the company is now pushing out Android 4.4 — aka: KitKat — to the Moto G, a phone that has been on sale for just barely over a month.

Moto G app menu

Motorola has definitely underpromised and overdelivered on this update. That’s a smart strategy in a sea of Android phones of updates “coming soon.” At the Moto G launch event, the company promised an Android 4.4 update for the handset in early 2014. Yet here we are just before the year-end holiday season and Moto G owners are getting an early gift.

Even better: While I haven’t tested the Moto G with Android 4.4 just yet — the update hasn’t arrived for me — I expect this $179 handset to perform a smidge better as Android 4.4 was redesigned to work with and optimized for phones with as little as 512 MB of memory. I’ll find out after I get the software update, of course. With its low cost and lesser hardware specifications, the Moto G ought to be the poster child for Android 4.4: A way to get a solid user experience and performance from a relatively low-cost Android handset.

Both Google and Motorola have repeatedly said that the Motorola division has no advance or special access to the Android software. That means Motorola is putting the other Android partners to shame right now. In fairness, Samsung, HTC, LG and others all have a more complex software situation to deal with: More carrier apps included and their own custom user interface skins, for example.

The notification shade of the Galaxy S 4 is a prime example of such customization that requires a revamp with each new main version of Android:

Galaxy S 4 setting buttons

That’s another reason, however, the Motorola line is more akin to the Nexus phones which offer a pure Android experience. Motorola’s new phones are generally designed the same way. The Moto X and Moto G software is very Nexus-like, with no custom interface and few carriers apps. Even the Verizon(s vz)(s vod) version of this line — the Droid Maxx, Mini and Ultra — has relatively few extra apps from the carrier and guess what: KitKat is already available for those phones as well.

I don’t think this signals the end of the line for Nexus phones. Google still has a need to push hardware makers forward with Android and it can still use devices to showcase the latest and greatest that Android alone has to offer. Hardware partners can also sell their smartphones in a pure Google Play Edition as well; there’s no reason that has to end.

Nexus 5 front home

Mainstream consumers, however, aren’t buying their handsets from the Google Play store. They’re buying them from other online retailers as well as traditional brick-and-mortar stores. So the bulk of this audience isn’t going to buy a Nexus phone that gets fast Android updates, even though these people may want those updates.

Based on how quickly Motorola is chugging along, it looks like there’s a Nexus-like option readily available on a phone that doesn’t have the Nexus branding. And that’s good because the Nexus line of devices often bring out the best in Android, even if most people don’t know about them.