Google spills the details on tablet OS, Honeycomb

Completely redesigned interface, new developer controls highlight a more user-friendly Android that’s optimized for tablets.

The great tease is over: Today, here at its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Google showed off Android 3.0, a tablet-friendly operating system also known as Honeycomb. The new tablet-optimised OS emphasizes a slick interface, beefed up graphics for games, and support for in-app purchases.

Along with the new operating system, Google also announced an Android Market Website that allows Android phone and tablet users to browse, purchase, and download apps directly to their devices -- no wires or USB syncing to a PC needed. The Web-based Android Market is live now.

The live Android 3.0 demos were performed on the unreleased Motorola Xoom tablet. Google showed off other enhancements to the OS, such as a Contact Shortcuts feature that allows you to create quick links to contacts for video chatting or sending e-mail. Google also offered live demonstrations of its video chat feature, new camera interface, visually immersive games, and multitasking capabilities.

One notable improvement is the redesigned message-notification system. Instead of a pull-down menu from the top, notifications are now a pull-up list from the bottom. Just like in Microsoft Windows, you'll see a pop-up (one Google described as un-intrusive, but that might depend upon your perspective) appear at the bottom right of the screen in landscape orientation, which was how Google demonstrated everything. The pro is that you see more information in each notification, and the messages disappear quickly.

Google also introduced a technology called RenderScript that allows smooth flipping, panning, and zooming of the Honeycomb interface and in apps such as Google Maps. The feature is credited to create a smooth navigating of the interface - similar in look and feel to Apple's Cover Flow technology.

Android 3.0: All About the Cloud

One important goal of Honeycomb, said Google vice president Andy Rubin, was to provide a seamless experience between Android devices and the cloud (Internet)."It's the cloud that makes these experiences seamless to improve performance," Rubin said. "In the future, you can see a real seamless integration between the phone, tablet, and Google TV."

Ultimately, the goals of Android 3.0 were multifold: To provide a better user experience, and to provide improved tools to developers using the AGILE development system. "We designed this platform for the amazing apps," said Hugo Barra, Google's director of product marketing.

One thing Google made a point to mention several times was that developers would be able to repurpose and reuse the new widgets, panes, and other elements added to the Android development toolkit. Presumably, the modularity of these elements will make it easier for developers to rapidly create new content, and to do so at a lower cost.

Web-based Android Market

Also introduced today was a version of the Android Market designed for access via the Web. Available now at market.android.com, the Web-version of Market provides a new way to search for content and install it directly to your device. You can choose your device from the Android Market interface, and your results are filtered to apps supported by your device. It provides an easy, single point of management for your apps across multiple devices, and apps get more room to advertise and explain themselves, too. Also confirmed as coming to the Market: In-app purchasing and local-currency support.

Unfortunately, the on-unit Android Market appears to be the same, and Google made no mention of whether any changes are afoot there; that version of Market is need of an update, too--particularly one that reflects that numerous devices and hardware and software fragmentation is the harsh reality of the Android universe.

Today's event gave us a closer look at some of the coming apps (CNN and Disney were among the developers who took the stage), and a brief overview of the new Honeycomb OS. It looks promising and sweet like Honeycomb. But I'll reserve final judgment for when I get a deep dive on the shipping version; only then will I be able to tell whether it goes far enough for Google to surge ahead of the competition.

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