When Apple’s iPad debuted last year, it resurrected a form of computing long thought unworkable, and created entirely new markets for book and news publishers. Attempts by others to follow that lead have lacked the iPad’s polish, but Google may have changed the equation by revealing its own take on the tablet experience yesterday.
Rather than offering a radical departure from the vision introduced by Apple, the company’s tablet-flavored version of its Android mobile operating system—dubbed Honeycomb—brings a handful of slick new user-interface features, designed for the more powerful hardware of a tablet. It also significantly streamlines the experience of installing apps on a tablet.
Before an audience at Google’s Mountain View headquarters yesterday, Hugo Barra, the company’s director of mobile products, explained the user-interface tweaks designed to make tablet computing slicker and more powerful.
Some new elements of the operating system will be familiar to iPad users. But one major departure is that users can install “widgets” onto their home screen. These widgets provide cut down access to apps and at-a-glance information. For example, a Gmail widget places a small but scrollable in-box onto the desktop. YouTube and news apps such as Pulse use a “stacks” widget, which appears like a stack of cards with the latest information—like a news photo—on the top card. A user can tap on that card to enter the app and see the full content, or flick a finger over the widget to cruise through other information in the stack.
“Widgets can be used to ‘bubble up’ important information to the home screen,” said Barra. “For the user, it’s about quick and easy access to important information.”
After the presentation, Akshay Kothari, cofounder of Alphonso Labs, which worked with Google to modify the Pulse News app for Honeycomb, told Technology Review that he considered widgets to be the biggest improvement over the iPad. “With these widgets, the user can interact a lot with their most-used apps without even opening them,” he said.
Two elements of Honeycomb’s interface are always accessible to the user, and reside in the screen’s lower left and right corners. In the lower left are three buttons: a “back” button, a multitasking button that calls up a list of all running apps, and a “home” button. In the lower right, a PC-like notification area displays alerts of new instant messages, and also allows access to apps running in the background and to system settings.
Apps can feature multiple panes, or “fragments,” and also support drag-and-drop actions, which makes using them closer to the experience of using a desktop application. Support for apps built using fragments is built into Honeycomb, said Barra. Fragments are self-contained and can be used to build apps for phones and tablets in a modular way, he said, which should speed the creation of apps.