The Google candy store has rolled out its newest treat, and it’s certainly a feast for the eyes. Fortunately, Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) isn’t just eye candy. Honeycomb is the first Android OS designed with tablets in mind (though it will be used on Smartphones in the future), and a necessary step for Google if they want to play catch up with Apple in the tablet market (which I’m going to go ahead and guess they do). It’s got all new 3-D friendly features and an improved UI that makes tablet computing easier and more efficient. Google’s love of widgets definitely shines through, and the whole home page screen is simplified and clean. Honeycomb is faster and easier to use than previous versions of Android, but does it really bridge the gap between Google and Apple’s iOS in the tablet market? Let’s find out.
The conference started out looking at the changes to the home screen. The new home page of Honeycomb is crisper, cleaner and faster than that of Froyo, and takes full advantage of the upgraded 3-D capabilities of the new OS. The demo showed off widgets for Gmail, YouTube, eBooks, and favorite websites. You can actively scroll through the widgets, and move between home screens with different widgets using sliding touch controls. The YouTube and eBooks widgets sported 3-D menus. You could even scroll through both on-screen widgets at the same time (I have absolutely no idea when or why you would ever do this, but maybe some of you are multitasking gods beyond my comprehension). The notification system is now much less intrusive. New notifications pop up in a small window on the bottom right, instead of the top of the screen, as in Froyo, and can quickly be acknowledged or ignored. You can also tap on the menu button to bring up a Facebook style pop-up menu with the latest notifications on your system. Last but not least, the multitasking button is off to the left, and opens up a menu on command that lists running and recently used apps. Menu buttons are small and out-of-the-way. Clutter reduction was definitely a priority when Google designed Honeycomb.
Apps can use things called application fragments, which are basically different panes within an app that can be slid around, and change based on the user’s demands. This was displayed using the Gmail app, where using the folder pane would allow the user to access the inbox. While in your inbox, you can click on a message, which will push the folder pane off screen, making room for the new message pane. It’s a slick presentation, and looks great in action. Also, menu bars up top change dynamically based on what the user is looking at or working with at the time.
A major focus of today’s press conference was Honeycomb’s 3-D rendering functionality, using Renderscript. For the most part, this provided the eye candy part of the presentation, with cool but not all that useful effects and graphics like page turning for eBooks and a 3-D video wall presentation for the YouTube app. It’s fluff, but it blows away the limited 3-D effects found on previous versions of Android. Of course, not all of the 3-D possibilities opened up by Renderscript are just for kicks. The Maps App gets a huge upgrade, as you can now tilt, rotate and zoom in on all maps. The tilt and rotate functions actually allowed the app to render 3-D models of buildings on each street, and the possibilities this opens up for street view are endless.
The other major focus was on how cameras will be used by Honeycomb. The camera itself will be supported by image stabilization and a host of other features you can play with to adjust camera settings, like lighting and photo effects. More importantly, Google wasted no time trying to catch up to FaceTime of iOS 4, as Honeycomb users will now be able to use video chat via GoogleTalk, using front facing cameras that will be on Android tablets in the future. A quick demonstration with the (very) fashionably late Cee-Lo Green was given, and it looks like a little more polish is needed. Initiating contact was quick and easy, but the sound could be a lot clearer and the video could be a lot smoother. For an early build, though, it’s not too bad. The more exciting use of the camera was presented by CNN representatives. A big part of that presentation covered CNN’s iReport. For those unfamiliar, iReport is basically a way for anyone to take pictures or video of an ongoing news event, and post it to the CNN website, complete with their own commentary. With Honeycomb, you can be a news reporter on the spot, without going back home to upload. The presenter showed a complete demonstration; you can take pictures or video of something, use the front facing camera to give your own commentary, and upload your report directly to CNN via their Android app instantly. It was a very fast and very easy process. Overall, speed seems to be a big focus of the Honeycomb presentation, and for good reason. Waiting for Cee-Lo to get online was about the only waiting that happened during the entire press conference.
Overall, Honeycomb is faster, cleaner, and more powerful than Froyo. It should, at the very least, land Google smack in the middle of the tablet game, now that they have a genuine, tablet friendly OS. The 3-D graphics capabilities make the UI much more dynamic and cool to look at than the now plain and flat looking Froyo UI. Everything is cleaner, and clutter has been reduced greatly.
It’s no surprise that it blows Froyo out of the water, but can it really stand up to Apple’s iOS 4? Well, time will tell. Android, at heart, is an open source platform, made with third party developers in mind. This alone is an advantage over the rigidity of Apple, but it also means that Android systems are only as good as their apps. Having said that, it looks like creating apps for Honeycomb will be easier than ever before (a brief discussion about coding suggested that hardware acceleration could be achieved through just one line of code), meaning more developers will flock to Android, possibly over Apple. Android continues to be a dream for developers, which is an advantage that can only get bigger over time.
Possibly the bigger advantage for Android is the use of Google’s cloud computing services. Data for users can be stored completely in the cloud, preserving everything in case of a lost or stolen device. It also helps the OS achieve the lightning speeds that were on display today. Cloud computing is only getting bigger from here, so look for Google to leverage these services even more in the future. Apple’s iOS 4 still has a cleaner presentation overall, but Honeycomb bridges a whole lot of gaps that were make or break details for people deciding on a tablet device (e.g., video chat and improved multitasking).
How will Honeycomb do overall? Considering it’s designed for tablets in the same way that earlier Android builds were made for smartphones, it seems likely that Honeycomb should land Google some prime market share property in the tablet game, just as Android phones found much success in 2010. How much market share will they get? Depends on the developers, and depends on the users. Stay tuned for more information on Honeycomb; 50 developers are slated to show off brand new apps at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona later this month.