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The Android that Apple’s Rivals Have Been Looking For

New operating system will make for slicker and more powerful tablets—but Apple may have an answer ready.
February 3, 2011

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.

Smarter screen: Google’s new operating system for tablets uses simplified forms of apps dubbed “widgets” to display recent information, such as e-mail or news.

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.

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.”

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