Google preps next version of Android

The updated version will support soft keyboards and allow widget creation in the home screen

Developers will now be able to take a look at the SDK (Software Development Kit) for the next version of the Android platform, Google announced on Monday on its developer blog.

Version 1.5 of the smartphone platform will include support for soft keyboards (including ones from third parties), live folders and speech recognition.

Another feature that is getting thumbs up from at least one developer is the ability to create widgets for the home screen.

"That is something people have been longing for quite some time. Users don't have to start the application, because it's just on your home screen," said Konrad Hübner, founder of SkyCoders, whose Cab4me application reached the top 10 in the Android Developer Challenge.

Google also promises better camera and GPS performance, support for video recording and the stereo version of Bluetooth.

Improvements for developers include the option to target different Android platform versions from within a single SDK installation and install Android SDK add-ons to access extended functionality that might be provided by, for example, operators, according to the blog post.

Google, however, will also have to make it easier for developers to make money from their applications if it wants to keep them interested, according to Hübner. Apple has done a better job in that regard, he said.

A final version of the SDK is expected later this month, and version 1.5 will be available as an over-the-air update for existing Android-based smartphones soon thereafter, according a spokesman at Google.

There are still only two phones based on the open-source operating system: the HTC Dream - also known as the T-Mobile G1 - and Vodafone's HTC Magic, which will start shipping this month in countries including Germany and the U.K, according to a Vodafone spokeswoman.

Android has a tremendous amount of support from phone manufacturers, but it has gotten off to a slow start, according to Geoff Blaber, analyst at CCS Insight. The progress it has made in a short time shouldn't be underestimated, but the smartphone space is highly competitive - so the sooner Google can start ramping up the volume the better, he said.

"We certainly feel that Google have made the decision to hold back on the news, and have a single high impact announcement. The advantage for some of the partners in falling into that kind of approach would be the increased marketing and promotional support they would get," said Blaber, who expects the joint announcement to come in May or June and more than six products to be available by the end of the year with more being announced for 2010.

For example, Samsung has said it will launch three Android phones this year, while release dates from Android backers LG, Motorola and Sony Ericsson are uncertain.

The lack of phones isn't a big problem for developers, according to Hübner. It was obvious from the beginning that it would take some time before many devices became available, and it has allowed developers more time to get comfortable with the platform, and not have to hassle with, for example, different screen sizes from the beginning, Hübner said.

Operators will also continue to play an important role in the roll-out of Android-based smartphones. However, there are still questions around the platform and uncertainty about what it means for operator business models going forward, said Blaber.

It is taking them some time to sit down with Google and work out how the relationship is going to work in a way that will benefit both parties, he said.

But the interest is definitely there. Vodafone has come to the conclusion it's something it can't risk being without, and more operators will follow in its footsteps, according to Blaber.

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