Last week, Google announced the launch and availability of Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich. The first product that will use the new operating system will be the Galaxy Nexus from Samsung, which was created in direct collaboration with Google to enable an optimized hardware and software experience. Both smartphones and tablets are expected to follow as Google recombines the OS tree to provide a unified user experience and toolkit for developers for both form factors.
What does 4.0 deliver to the user? For me, it breaks into three main categories: personalization, communication and sharing.
The ability to personalize the user interface has always been one of Android’s main strengths. This 4.0 flavor improves personalization to allow the user to do things like re-size widgets and flip through the entire calendar without launching the app. Users can group apps from home screen folders. A new voice-to-text feature allows for extended dictation in multiple languages — I’m not entirely sure how this will compare to Siri, the new iPhone assistant. To meet the needs of users with tiered or metered data plans, Android 4.0 adds new controls for managing network data usage. However, the main new addition for personalization is “Face Unlock,” which is based on facial recognition and allows the users to unlock their device with their faces.
Communication improvements center on the new “People app,” which connects social networks including Google+, and new camera capabilities. The camera interface has been redesigned to include built-in panorama mode and the ability to shoot video in 1080p. New camera features include “Live Effects,” which allows the user to change backgrounds, and “Silly Faces,” which speaks for itself. Once the images are stored, the user is able to edit photos inside the gallery using a range of new editor tools. These images can also be viewed directly from the home screen via a new Picture Gallery Widget.
The ability to share data and apps from an Android device, a much sought-after usage model as people look to replace traditional content services, is enabled a number of ways via Ice Cream Sandwich. Android Beam, a Near Field Communications technology, allows people to instantly exchange their favorite apps, contacts, music, videos by just touching two Android-powered devices together. Looking to share data with non-Android devices? Use Wi-Fi Direct, which allows for connection to other devices via Wi-Fi for sharing of files, photos or streaming video to audio, enabling for the Android device to be the home hub for entertainment. Finally, as Android expands beyond consumers, the addition of Bluetooth Health Device Profile will enable users to connect with a range of devices from wireless medical devices and sensors in hospitals, machines in fitness centers and energy management devices in the home.
Most of the reviews of Android 4.0 have focused on the new end user features (for good reason). These are numerous, and will deliver a much improved experience over Android 2.3 and 3.0. However, 4.0 also delivers a number of improvements for developers. To enable developers to explore and add functionality to their apps, Google has released APIs for social, calendar, visual voicemail, keyboard, spell checker and text to speech. The new sharing features from Android to Bluetooth Health Device Profile also allow developers new ways for end users to interact with their apps and share between users. Android has not forgotten about the enterprise with keychain and VPN APIs for managing credentials and connections, and a new administrator policy for disabling the camera. However, most importantly is the unified user interface toolkit, including components, styles and capabilities that will enable developers to simplify code and resources and streamline development and deployment of apps across all devices. This is critical as the fight for developers across the different mobile ecosystems is far from over. Android needs to continue to entice developers to work with Android: Revenue from the Android apps is still a challenge for the majority of developers, however sweet the latest OS might be for end users.