Google gave Android developers several reasons to cheer on Tuesday with its announcement of new versions of the operating system, as well as the addition of music and movies to the Android Market.
With the next major Android OS release, code-named Ice Cream Sandwich, Google will pursue the goal of having a single operating system for all types of smartphones and tablet devices.
Ice Cream Sandwich will contain a revamped application framework with new functionality and APIs (application programming interfaces) designed to automatically reconfigure applications to different mobile devices, Google officials said Tuesday during the opening keynote of the company’s I/O developer conference.
Ice Cream Sandwich is due in the fourth quarter, so in the interim Google is releasing Android 3.1, an update to Honeycomb, which is designed for tablet devices. Its enhancements include making Android tablet devices USB hosts, so that USB devices can be hooked up to them, and allowing Android developers to create applications for the Google TV platform.
Google also announced that starting Tuesday, the Android Market features movies to rent and stream online and in devices. Rentals start at US$1.99. Users will have 30 days to start watching the rented movies, and once started, movies must be watched within 24 hours.
Officials also confirmed that the company is in a private beta test of a cloud-based music service called Music Beta, which is now available by invitation only to U.S. users.
It features a music manager application and allows users to import their iTunes libraries, including their playlists. A feature called Instant Mix generates playlists on the fly based on a chosen genre or song from the user’s library.
Music Beta will be free during its beta period, and feature a capacity for 20,000 songs.
Hugo Barra, Android product management director, said that more than 100 million Android devices have been activated worldwide so far, and that there are more than 450,000 Android developers who have created some 200,000 applications.
End users have installed 4.5 billion Android applications so far, with the most recent 1 billion happening in the past 60 days, he said.
There are about 310 different Android devices available in 110 countries, he said. More than 400,000 Android devices are activated every day, Barra said.
Issues not addressed
The improvements mentioned, though welcome, don’t seem to address many of the issues already identified in Android 3.0. At the forefront: The image rendering glitch that’s very obvious in the Gallery app, where images appear fuzzy and lack detail as compared with their original versions.
Today’s update will improve the quick access button’s function, so you can scroll amongst your recent tasks, instead of being limited to the number that fit on the screen. Some of these apps may be running, some may not be currently running, but were accessed recently. Google emphasizes that Android manages resources so you won’t have to quit an app to launch something else. However, the company hasn’t addressed the fact that, confusingly, the OS’s poorly designed back button actually exits apps, as opposed to leaving them running in the background.
Also improved: You can now resize widgets horizontally or vertically in Honeycomb. On stage, the demo included resizing the mail widget to show more messages. This capability didn’t surprise us; we already saw resizable widgets on Samsung’s demo of its upcoming Galaxy Tab 10.1, behind closed doors at CTIA Wireless in March. Google says developers can update their current widgets to support this capability with just a few lines of .xml code.
Google says the new USB host functionality will allow tablets to support directly importing photos from a digital camera, as well support peripherals like USB keyboards and input devices like game controllers and mice.
The USB host support is important for another reason, too. Later in the keynote, Google introduced its Android Open Accessory strategy, to enable the creation of accessories that will work with Android 2.3.4 Gingerbread and Android 3.1 Honeycomb devices. Google gave an example of plugging a phone into a LifeCycle exercise machine, with an app called Cardio Quest. The exercise bike recognized that it was connected to a phone. The application programming interface then can control the bike and the game a rider is going to play as he bikes. Along with the Android Open Accessory strategy, Google also released a hardware and software reference design to get accessory makers going.