Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich: Brilliant Thievery?

Google rolled out Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich on Wednesday. What's in, what's out, and what features did Google steal from the competition?
It appears that no feature is safe from being poached these days when it comes to the smartphone wars. The mighty Google took inspiration not only from iOS, but from Windows Phone, and webOS, too, in its most recent version of Android. Let's take a look.

Google's Android Chief Andy Rubin took the stage Wednesday morning in Hong Kong (or late Tuesday night, if you're on the East Coast) to introduce Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS). Android 4.0 arrives approximately 11 months after its predecessor, Android 2.3 Gingerbread, and clearly shows that Google has been hard at work improving its mobile operating system.

Android 4.0 has an entirely new look and feel. Google's design chief, Matias Eduarte, was very proud to show off a new font for Android 4.0 called Roboto (hold the Styx jokes, please). It is pleasing, I guess, or at least not offensive. It gives the entire operating system a more Zen-like look to it.

Android 4.0 is big on integration and shortcuts, especially on the home screen. Consider the dock at the bottom of the Android home screen, for example. Often it holds shortcuts to four applications. In Android 4.0, it can hold folders--your favorite contacts, for example--so that you have them accessible across all the home screen panels on the device. There're similar mash-ups across the user interface.

The drop-down notification shade gets an update. Now, individual notifications can be cleared with but a swipe, while leaving other alerts unperturbed. It also includes easier access to vital system tools.

Of course, the most exciting new changes are the features that will be associated with the Galaxy Nexus, such as Face Unlock, Android Beam, and Voice Typing. With Face Unlock, the phone uses facial recognition software and the camera together so that only the user's visage will unlock the device. Of course, the demo totally failed on stage for Matias.

Android Beam takes advantage of a smartphone's NFC (near-field communications) to automatically send contact information between devices when tapped together. Both phones will need NFC chips and Android Beam software for this to work. Google said that it is including APIs for this feature in the Android 4.0 SDK.

The camera software has been revitalized with what Google calls "zero shutter lag," and will support panorama mode, new effects, HD video capture (device dependent), and more. Android 4.0 also includes Google Voice with Video Chat--and supports HD video chatting as long as the hardware does.

How did Google do in matching our five most-wanted features?

I think it scored pretty well on the first one, which was for a more polished and unified operating system. What Google showed clearly demonstrated that the company considered how things look, feel, and work across the entire OS.

Number two on our list was enterprise-grade security. As far as I recall, Google didn't say a single thing about security with Ice Cream Sandwich--other than to demonstrate the Face Unlock feature of the Galaxy Nexus.

Native video chat was number three, and Google came through big on that one. Heck, it even supports HD video chatting.

Google also took steps to improve the browser of Ice Cream Sandwich. It gave Android 4.0 better multitasking powers, and those filtered down to the browser, which now has better support for tabs, improved HTML5 and other design tweaks.

As for supporting a master inbox of sorts, Google didn't really dive deep enough into the Gmail experience for me to say with certainty. Given how much time Google spent talking about the big picture stuff and not the nitty-gritty details, it appears that a master inbox wasn't on the list of notable improvements.

So, did Google steal any new features from the other mobile platforms out there? It sure did! Here are a few of the most glaring thefts.

1. iOS: One of the neat UI tricks that Google demonstrated during its presentation was how you can grab home screen shortcuts, applications, and such and drag them all together to create folders. This is exactly how folders are created in iOS.

2. WebOS: In webOS, you can dismiss notifications by swiping them left or right. What did Google show off in its new notification center? The ability to dismiss notifications by swiping them off the screen.

3. Windows Phone: Considering the amount of money Microsoft is making by licensing out patents related to Android, I was surprised by this one. Google took Facebook integration to a new level. It wants you to interact with "people," not contacts. It goes so far as to import Facebook friends' recent photos and create a collage out of them. Guess who also does that? You guessed it! Microsoft!

Of course, there's a whole helluva a lot more under the skin with respect to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. If you want, go ahead and download the SDK right here.

SaaS productivity apps are good to go--if you can get past security and data ownership concerns. Read all about it in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek SMB. Download it now. (Free with registration.)

Editor's Choice
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author
Carrie Pallardy, Contributing Reporter
Alan Brill, Senior Managing Director, Cyber Risk, Kroll
John Bennett, Global Head of Government Affairs, Cyber Risk, Kroll
Sponsored by Lookout, Sundaram Lakshmanan, Chief Technology Officer
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Richard Pallardy, Freelance Writer
Sponsored by Lookout, Sundaram Lakshmanan, Chief Technology Officer
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing