Google demonstrated Honeycomb’s features, as well as new apps developed by partners for the new operating system, using Motorola Xoom tablets, which are set to become available through Verizon in March. The tablet’s dual-core processor is more efficient and powerful than previous mobile chips, allowing slick 3-D graphics, among other features.
The Xoom hardware opens up new possibilities for game developers, Thomas Williamson, CEO of the Florida-based studio War Drum Studios, told Technology Review. “We can offer a really powerful experience that has not been possible on a mobile device before, like real physics and powerful AI,” he said. “I’d estimate that these devices can do 60 percent of what a new console can, and that gap is closing.” War Drum Studios was also granted early access to Honeycomb and has ported two of its titles—originally developed for the PC, Xbox, and Playstation—over to the new OS: Monster Madness and Great Battles.
The same hardware that brings realistic fireballs and lighting to such games also provides user-interface polish not seen on a tablet or smartphone before. Users can smoothly scroll a 3-D “video wall” in Google’s YouTube app, fly over buildings in 3-D in Google Maps, and see slick animations as they flip between apps.
When tablets designed for Honeycomb were first shown off in public, at January’s Consumer Electronics Show, they appeared without a finished operating system and were not available to reviewers. Although Google allowed journalists to handle tablets running Honeycomb that seemed fully functional yesterday, Google’s Android chief, Andy Rubin, said onstage that engineers were still completing the operating system. “They’re right now putting the finishing touches on what we’re talking about today,” he said.
Rubin and others made no mention of it, but their work is at risk of soon being overshadowed. With the first anniversary of the iPad’s launch approaching in April, Apple is expected to reveal a significant upgrade to the device that started it all.
However, Aric Cheston, a creative director with Frog Design, says some changes unveiled by Google do challenge Apple. For example, an upgrade to the Android market makes it possible to browse Android apps using a Web browser and with a few clicks have that app automatically install on their tablet remotely. Honeycomb is also tightly integrated with Google’s Web services—for example, the camera has one-click upload to YouTube.
“Contrast that with how you have to use iTunes and physically plug in your iPad to add apps [from another device],” says Cheston, “Google has gone beyond just the hardware and made big moves on smoothing out bumps in the ecosystem around a tablet.”