After Apple’s recent product launch, many unimpressed iOS users have been tempted to look at their options. Google, having scheduled the launch of the next generation of Android, code-named: Ice Cream Sandwich, had the unique opportunity to charm potential new customers with a cadre of innovative new features. Did they succeed in evolving the most popular smartphone platform enough to make the disbelievers think twice? Is there a new groundbreaking feature or features that will give Apple’s Siri a run for its money? Let’s take a look at the next generation of Android and you can decide for yourself.
The presentation of Android 4.0 was given by Matias Duarte, who managed projects for Danger, Helio and Palm before joining with Google after Palm’s sale to HP. Most notably, Duarte gave birth to the innovative WebOS smartphone platform, which developed an almost cult following by its small user-base. Recognizing Duarte’s background with Palm is important to understanding some of the new features that have been implemented into Ice Cream Sandwich. What’s most interesting about him, however, is his ability to talk about his designs and ideas in a way that people can understand; an empathetic approach to a press conference that can be compared and contrasted in many ways to the presentation style of the late Steve Jobs.
“We asked ourselves for the first time: what is the soul of Android?”
Matias opened up the presentation with some deep, stimulating thoughts.
“While people like Android, and while people need Android, people didn’t love Android.”
These sentiments set the tone for the redemptive theme of the rest of the presentation, and the three principles used to define the changes that were made; enchant me, simplify my life and make me awesome.
Android 4.0′s interface
The first announcement was a new look and feel to the Android user interface, which was accomplished simply by changing to a new font, named Roboto. A modern, yet pragmatic design, Roboto was built from scratch and optimized for paper density displays.
Next came an explanation of the approaches that were used to make UI changes, comparing the new interface to a magazine layout. These changes focused on eliminating unnecessary interfaces, and making them more approachable through elegant animations. They started with the unlock screen, by using the Roboto font on the clock and adding animations that they felt were more inviting to the user. All buttons have been eliminated on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the flagship product for Ice Cream Sandwich, just like their tablet OS. The home, back, menu and search icons are all located on the screen, rotate with the view, and are hidden when not needed.
Noticeable changes have been made to the way Android handles widgets. A list of available widgets can be brought up, similar to the list of apps that is currently available. Widgets are also resizable, giving the user a better command over their home screen experience.
Home screen folders allow the user to logically organize their apps, shortcuts and contacts on the home screen. A favorites tray was also added to place frequently used apps and shortcuts in a place where they can be accessed easily from every page.
Quick response is one of the more powerful features of Ice Cream Sandwich. This enables you to take a conversation from one medium, and instantly transfer it to another. For instance, let’s say you are driving and someone calls you. You can setup pre-determined responses like, “I’m currently driving, call you back soon.” As your phone rings, you will be given the option to swipe the call towards the automated response, and the caller will be notified instantly of your current status. Quick response also allows you to take a conversation from Facebook and transfer it to Google Talk, or from SMS and transfer to Twitter, which can be very useful if moving in and out of an area with poor cellular reception into one with a good WiFi connection.
Technology upgrades in Android 4.0
While not quite on par with Apple’s Siri, Ice Cream Sandwich shows definite improvement to the current implementation of talk-to-text. Features added to the voice input system include continuous talking, punctuation, multi-language support and spell check on-the-fly.
For those of you with tiered or metered data plans, Ice Cream Sandwich implements a comprehensive data monitoring and control feature that will save you from painfully high phone bills. Real-time monitoring allows you to zoom in on certain time periods, and lists the apps that were using data during that time, ordered by throughput. This will make it easier to target and pinpoint which apps are using the most data. You can also set warnings and hard limits on data usage, on a per-app basis.
New accessibility features have been added to make the device more usable for people with disabilities. Some of these features include an Explore-by-Touch mode which allows you to navigate your screen audibly without having to look at it, as well as an audible screen reader in the browser, for perusing content. The font size can also be changed throughout the entire system for improved readability.
The new People App brings a whole new level of integration to your contacts list. Wherever contacts can be selected, Android brings up a full docket of information, including status updates and the ability to connect through integrated social networks. Your own contact information is stored in the Me profile, allowing you to easily share your information and connect with others through social media from a single source.
The camera in Ice Cream Sandwich has seen vast improvements. Camera speed is now instantaneous, with continuous focusing, zero shutter lag exposure, and quick shot-to-shot speed. One-touch zoom has also been added, allowing you to easily zoom in-and-out, even while recording video. You can also capture larger scenes with the single-motion panorama feature, by slowly turning the camera after starting exposure. The camera than assembles the images into one continuous panoramic picture.
The gallery app has been redesigned to make it easier to organize, sort and tag photos. Also added to the gallery app is a photo editor, enabling simple features that allow you to resize, rotate and crop photos, as well as more enhanced features like red-eye removal, level adjustments and effects.
You can now share just about anything from one Android phone to another using the new Beam feature. This is done by touching two devices together (do it slow, and sexy) and tapping on the screen of the source device to send the data.
One of the only parts of the conference that failed during the live broadcast was the face recognition security feature. Matias blamed it on the makeup, but I heard similar buzz coming up on my Twitter feed, about how face recognition can be thrown off by anything from a hangover to beard growth. Nonetheless, it should recognize and detect your face most of the time and can be bypassed with a password when it fails.
Standout features of Android 4.0
One of the new features that seems to have eluded most of the press is the default hardware acceleration that is coming with Ice Cream Sandwich. This will finally put to rest the complaint that iOS is “smoother” than Android. Hardware acceleration not only causes apps to run more smoothly, improving performance and user response, it also is more efficient and will save battery life. All applications with API level of 14, which includes all stock and included apps with ICS, will have hardware acceleration turned on by default.
The last new feature I wanted to talk about was something that, in my opinion, has been one of the greatest innovations in mobile device technology for more than two years. This is Android’s implementation of the card system that was once made famous by Matias Duarte when it was first implemented on WebOS. The problem with most mobile devices is that you have a smaller screen than normal, and instead of having a mouse, where dragging-and-dropping is efficient, you’re using a multi-touch screen where sliding is more convenient. This is why mobile devices lack the “Windows” that you see on desktop graphical user interfaces, and makes it very difficult to see which apps are running, switch between them and close them, in real time. The card system on WebOS would organize your apps into cards, at the push of a button, that you could slide between, or flick off of the screen to close.
There are only a couple of differences between the Android and WebOS implementations. On Android, instead of scrolling horizontally through your app cards, you scroll through your apps vertically, which appears more like a list than cards. You can still switch between apps and flick them off the screen to close them just like in WebOS. The major difference is that they’ve taken the design of the app manager and applied it to other areas of the OS, like email and their new tabbed browser.
The notifications area has also changed to the same format as the task manager, making it more like the WebOS notifications system. These new features will entice many WebOS users to switch to the Android platform, if they haven’t switched already.
Join in the discussion! What do you like about the new Android? What do you think you might not like? Did Google do a good job of answering to the wahs of forlorn Apple fanatics? Will this device indeed solve world hunger? How do you think the mobile landscape will play out over the next year?