Google shined the light on some new developments in its next mobile operating system, which is designed for a better tablet experience; but it still failed to answer crucial questions about ship dates and fragmentation.
More of Google's Android 3.0 (Honeycomb), the mobile operating system optimized for tablet devices, crawled out into the light of day: more developer tools, more context around its new features, more native applications, and more information about the Android Market. With each addition, the excitement builds; but this week's excitement was largely manufactured.
Carefully orchestrated announcements are ancient practice. After all, wasn't Steve Jobs' famous "one more thing" originally uttered by Cicero during the reign of Julius Caesar? But you'd have to go to Punxsutawney, PA to find an event as meaninglessly ceremonial as Google's Honeycomb rollout. Ironically, Google chose Groundhog Day for its celebration, and like the rodent's absent shadow in the middle of this dreadful winter, all we got were the same rosy promises with little relief.
What We Already Knew
Honeycomb video demonstrations appeared on Google's mobile blog earlier this year, like a movie trailer showing all of the most enticing parts. The holographic, 3D user experience makes me want to consume so much content that I lick my tablet like a dog lapping up a bowl's remaining morsels.
The menu items on the screen's system bar along the bottom provide all of the tablet interaction, and its multi-tasking button is a superbly intuitive way to get a quick glance at running apps and a view of the state you left them in. The action menu bar along the top provides a more customized set of menus on a per-application basis.
The browser is tabbed, provides auto-fill on forms, offers private browsing, and syncs with Google Chrome bookmarks. It includes Google Maps 5 (3D interaction, vector graphics so you can load an entire route) and Google Talk (for video chats).
It looks, in a word, better. Better than iOS. Better than QNX on the Playbook. But that is a shallow judgement based on staged demonstrations. Talk to me when it's done, when it's shipped, deployed and abused. When the Playbook ships, when HP/Palm's tablets ship, when the next iPad ships; that's the competitive landscape for the next 12 months.
What Google Unveiled
Google has talked about richer widgets, but now it's clear that these widgets will function a bit more like applications. An e-mail widget will scroll through actual e-mail, for example. Google showed off a grid widget in which users could thumb through bookmarked web sites. Stack widgets provided another method for flipping through popular YouTube videos or books.
Google has talked about richer notifications, but now it's clear that notifications will pop up (on their own, or manually) with much more information -- an instant message with profile data. These capabilities will be exposed for developers to imagine the possibilities. End-users can control these notifications with what Google's Android Product Manager, Hugo Barra, called "line item veto." He may have been joking. I hope he wasn't.
Google introduced application fragments (an unfortunate choice of words, given that OS fragmentation is an oft-cited Android critique); essentially these are templates for developers to encapsulate specific functionality and use it for various parts of an application--modular application panes that stay in place while other parts of the application change. On smaller screens, this becomes a way to make an application more efficient. Providing developers with the tools to do this can make them more efficient. Tasty.
A dragging manager (Barra's term) helps with dragging interactions--say, dragging a message into a folder.
The 3D API (OpenGL) wasn't a secret, but Google discussed its RenderScript and animation engine in a bit more detail. First, Barra said that developers would be able to add one mere line of code to take advantage of hardware acceleration for both 3D and 2D graphics. RenderScript provides high performance, interactive 3D graphics -- the YouTube video wall featured so prominently in Google's video demos is one example of this in action. The animation engine simply provides an enormous performance boost to actions like swipes and scrolls. Developers can get at all of this through the SDK.
Application partners, including CNN and Disney, took the stage to showcase some of the instrumentation. Google showed Google Body, which takes advantage of the enhanced 3D performance to provide what it called the Google Maps of the human anatomy; an apt description, and a fantastic example of what developers can do, like providing detailed views of how something works, or isolating a problem on any system (human or not).
CNN's popular iReport application was significant because it makes filing user-generated video reports extremely easy, it also demonstrated some of the application fragment capability for the CNN site. Disney and War Drum (maker of popular games) exercised multi-touch features and the high performance graphics engine and 3D APIs. I got an up-close tour of each of these, and they are immersive and rich.
All of these apps will fit snugly into the Android Market, and Google even announced a web-based version of the market (called Market Webstore). The cool part is that it then gets automatically pushed to your Android device. The Android Market is also finally one that can present choices based on device type, which will be especially handy with tablet-optmized applications.
Just give us the Tablet already. So far, only the preview SDK is available for developers . . . to get ready. Not the real thing. The OS isn't even being given to OEMs, Barra said. In other words, we're no closer than we were, but who knows. Nobody is saying.
Questions persist about fragmentation. Barra was barraged with questions about it for almost an hour after the prepared portion of the day. One developer I talked to said his engineers wrote their Honeycomb app from scratch. That's a problem, even if the development conventions are similar enough that it could be recreated in two weeks.
Barra was very clear: Honeycomb is optimized for tablets. Regular Android apps will run on tablets, but there's more they can do if they are modified and take advantage of Honeycomb's features. Honeycomb apps are not intended for regular Android devices, like phones.
The idea of bringing various Android versions together and consolidating feature sets is certainly on Google's mind, Barra said, but the discussions have just begun, meaning it's a long way off. You'll see some of the more generic features in Honeycomb appear elsewhere (application fragments, for example). Eventually, Barra confirmed, code bases will consolidate. Eventually.
Rubin poignantly kicked off the day saying that Google considered itself "the shepherd of Android." The flock feels a little untamed.
Void of any firm shipment dates, or firm answers to big questions, Google instead lured the press and developers to headquarters so we could watch Hugo Barra video chat with a garbled and tardy Cee Lo.
Why? Because any day now, Apple will toss out a lovely little rose petal, and for weeks we will all sniff at it in wonder. Because next week, HP/Palm will announce its tablets, which most likely won't be ready for months either; on the day of Google's event, Palm leaked a teaser video.
Because RIM is starting to show apps and the work they've done with developers, letting us first see a device behind a screen or on YouTube and then on stage actually working; finally we got to hold it and touch it.
Because until firm plans are known, the interim plan is to leave little bread crumbs, watch us lap it up and hope for the best, which is really just another way of keeping the conversation going.
Everyone from Android chief Andy Rubin to Barra to Disney stuffed their monologues with words like "terrific" and "amazing" and "cool" and "awesome," saying how "exciting" each bread crumb was, how tasty each morsel.
All of that convincing left me feeling played, and that this week's progress, while crucial, was soporific.
Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.
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