Google: 100 million Android devices activated, 4.5 billion apps downloaded

The Android mobile powerhouse is cruising to new heights with 100 million activated devices, 4.5 billion applications downloaded from the Android Market, and 450,000 developers building tools for Android phones and tablets, Google said Tuesday as it kicked off the fourth annual Google I/O developers conference.

There are now 400,000 activations of new Android devices every day, with more than 310 devices available in 112 countries from 36 OEM vendors and 215 carriers, Google said. The Android Market has hit 200,000 applications, Google also announced, still quite a bit behind Apple's 350,000 apps for iPhones and iPads.

LIFE AT GOOGLE: Visiting the GooglePlex

"There were many skeptics," boasted Hugo Barra, director of Android product management. "What did Google know? We had never been in the mobile space or the operating system business."

Barra and colleagues announced numerous improvements to the Android platform, both for smartphones and for tablets. While Google has, by some measures, toppled Apple for the most popular smartphone operating system, Android still lags far behind the iPad in large part because the applications built for Android phones don't look so great on the larger screen of a tablet.

Google engineer Mike Cleron said Android 3.1, the next version of Honeycomb, will roll out to owners of Motorola Xoom tablets today. He also said the next major release of Android will be code-named "Ice Cream Sandwich."

Today, there are two versions of Android: one for tablets and one for smartphones. Android chief Andy Rubin said Google "took a shortcut" by not making Honeycomb available for phones, or under an open source license, because Google didn't want manufacturers to "wedge" a tablet OS onto phones.

But Ice Cream Sandwich, to be available by the end of 2011, will represent the "re-merging" of the tablet and smartphone versions of Android and be fully open source, Rubin said in a briefing with reporters.

"Ice Cream Sandwich will be the next big open source release toward the end of the year," Rubin said. Applications built today can run on both smartphones and tablets, but Google said Ice Cream Sandwich will make it easier for developers to build applications optimized for both.

Google is also partnering with most of the major carriers and device manufacturers to guarantee that new Android devices will receive the last software updates for 18 months after launch, as long as the hardware is capable of running the latest versions of Android. Until now, there have been long delays in carriers rolling out updates to users. For example, just 4% of Android users have been upgraded to Android 2.3, the latest smartphone version. The partnership behind the 18-month guarantee includes Verizon, HTC, Samsung, Sprint, Sony Ericsson, LG, T-Mobile, Vodafone, Motorola and AT&T.

Although version "fragmentation" hasn't hampered Android's growth, Google said it's in the best interests of developers to be able to develop for a single version of the operating system. Android does not provide a consistent experience across devices the way Apple does with iPhones and iPads, but this is a step in that direction.

Google took some subtle shots at Apple, including showing a drawing of an Android mascot eating an apple. But Google Vice President Vic Gundotra said, "We were just having a little bit of fun, we try not to take ourselves too seriously. We're all doing really amazing work. It's great to be in a battle for the hearts and minds of developers."

Google is making a bigger push into the online music and movies markets where Apple has been so successful with iTunes. At Google I/O, the company announced a new music service that lets users stream music from the Internet or cache some songs for offline play on Android devices and PCs. Google also said it is bringing movie rentals to the Android Market, starting at $1.99 for a movie. The movie rental service went live today and the music service is in a limited beta.

Google also showed off some functionality coming for tablets that will let developers build new types of applications. One included a camera that reacts to movements of a person's head and eyes, and can recognize two people and switch perspectives based on who is speaking. Another technology lets users control remote objects with their tablet's movements, for example a game where you move a metal ball around a maze with a series of holes.

Google showed off future technology where the Android device will become a control mechanism for any electrical object in the home. Light switches, dishwashers, anything could be controlled by the Android device, and developers could build applications that integrate with this functionality. A stage demonstration showed a Google employee playing the first-person shooter game Quake on a tablet, with game actions such as shooting enemies also turning lights in the room on and off.

Functionality in the just-released Android 3.1 includes a larger Gmail widget to view more messages, multitasking that automatically shuts down and restores applications automatically, and the ability to connect with USB devices, including digital cameras, keyboards and game controllers.

Android 3.1 will also come to Google TV this summer.

"We want one operating system that runs everywhere," Cleron said.

With Google I/O continuing Wednesday, there is expected to be a greater focus on Chrome and Chrome OS. (See also: Chrome OS: 10 things you can and can't do with the Google PC)

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