Android 3.0 finally landed! What do you say? Android Honeycomb, who, what, wheeeere? Well, let me be a bit more specific, some hours ago the SDK Preview for Android 3.0 was
released here. And just to let you know, i am totally excited. I am so excited that i even started writing this blog post while i am still downloading the new package. Before i start – my dear Apple friend be warned – i am slightly biased towards Android. 🙂
Honeycomb is the version we waited so long for! An Android version specifically tailored for tablets and larger screen devices. There were rumours going around for months, many thought Gingerbread could be very well the tablet version for Android. But nah, nothing. Finally it’s here and the wait is over. The masterpiece from Matias Duarte (see an interview with Josh from engadget here), the former Senior Director of User Experience from HP Palm, who left the company for a much bigger opportunity: Bring joy in use and visual appearance to Android.
I guess most of you know this already, but when it comes to mobile devices i am a total uber-nerd. I don’t care who makes the device, if it rocks and shines, i am in!
I, being and android-developer, am even bowing down to Steve Jobs and his Apple armada for giving the iPhone and the iPad to the world. Introducing the masses to a much more modern and intuitive way of mobile computing could just not have been accomplished by one of the other guys that were around at that time (Nokia, nod nod). Revolution and innovation is what shapes the future of our industry, hardware and specifically consumer devices will be a big part of it.
That, just as a little disclaimer to let you know that i am open to any other competitor that’s out there and that i have a close eye on everything that pops up in that space (hello Bada… where are you?).
Let’s get back to the reason i am writing this tonight. Android. It has been around for quite some time. I looked at many devices before i finally made the decision to pile up some money and get my first Android Smartphone.
But for quite some time now i also wanted to have a tablet. When the iPad came around i was quite interested, even without being a Mac user it just had this special feeling and we knew it does something right. I could have bought the iPad but i decided not to. It was around the time where i was just diving into Android development. I wasn’t sure if Google would ever focus tablets with Android and no one really knew that a year ago (remember the rumours for ChromeOS on tablets?). Nevertheless i decided to wait and see if there will be competitors to the iPad running Android. And there even were some tablets running standard versions of Android, but none was really quite up to the game. The only one that
really felt like it could be as usable as the iPad was the GalaxyTab from Samsung. They did a good job tailoring Android for phones to their tablet. But nonetheless it was still a phone OS and there was not much support for developing applications.
But finally we’ve seen plenty of real competition at CES 2011 and my guess is that we will see even more at MWC 2011 that will be at least on par with the iPad 2 regardless of what features and hardware Apple plans to ship.
So let’s have a sneak peak at what’s coming for honeycomb, specifically what Google brings with the preview SDK (see here http://developer.android.com/sdk/android-3.0-highlights.html).
Android 3.0 – The consumer perspective
Say it out loud: Android for Tablets IS NOT like iOS for the iPad. Apple stuck to a very minimalistic approach to the tablet. They focused on the apps, certainly they did and they did great. But when it comes to the overall feeling and main user interface (home screen, etc.) it’s just a big iPhone. It’s their approach and it works nough said, they make tons of Benjamins with it.
Android 3.0 did use this opportunity to finally make up for what they missed in the first place. A cool looking user interface and a unique experience. If you look at that vanilla Honeycomb images i most certainly feel like using a device from Star Trek. It looks totally futuristic. Somehow it’s Android, but somehow it’s not. It comes with all the Android stuff we know and love like multiple home screens, the notification bar and widgets. But it also comes with a lot of new stuff. Action Bars by default (you know THIS pattern presented during Google IO 2010). A completely redesigned (and greatly welcomed) new keyboard. New Google applications tailored for tablets. USB connectivity to sync media files with a PC or a camera. But what’s really cool: USB connectivity for standard Desktop Keyboards! Wow. Now that’s really cool. Get yourself a dock and a normal USB Keyboard and work productively on texts and similar stuff. Definetly a great enhancement – trash all that proprietary (and very expensive) accessories!
Camera and Gallery
Looking really good so far, this holographic UI seems to be quite consistent on some of the new Google Apps. It definetly works for the ones that already featured darker UIs. I hope to see more of that stuff and really like to see how it feels in my hands.
A new Browser
The browser really got some love from the android developers. Other sites also mentioned that. It feels much more like a modern desktop browser and is not as stripped down as the normal browser that comes with Android smartphones. But for sure there are always alternatives. And probably there will be also specific versions of this alternatives for Honeycomb.
Google mail got, of course, also a revamp of its UI. It comes close to what i’ve seen for the iPad. But when it comes to traditional Multipane Applications that support touch support – what could be done different? It’s a good approach, putting lists to the left and the content to the right. What i really like is how the new ActionBar comes into play. It’s a much cleaner way of accessing actions and Menus. I really hate the way menus currently work on Android phones and i hope they bring the same system to the phone version of Android.
Something that is not on Googles preview page. Games. The processing power and the power of the GPUs of the coming honeycomb tablets will bring RICH – really bad ass – power to game developers. Nvidia Tegra 2 baby. Yes it has a huge amount of computing power, two cores, and will be even clocked at 1.2 GHZ on each core (at least the ones coming in summer/late summer). But that’s not all. Nvidia has made a very good decision by putting a “desktop” like graphics card on this chip.
What? How could that be done you ask? Well, let’s nail it down a bit. For sure it’s almost nothing like a traditional graphics card for the desktop as there are totally different requirements for power consumption and heat. But Nvidia brought the same features of modern graphic cards to its mobile lineup.
What’s so interesting about that you ask?
Well. It enables developers to reuse their already existing assets! Textures, Shaders and alike – they run without huge changes on a graphics card inside a tablet! And that’s the big thing. Thanks to Tegra 2 there will be tons of new high end 3D graphic games for tablets featuring this particular processor. And i bet we will see a lot of stuff that’s just not possible today with the iPad.
Well, almost nothing. But yes there is something i would really like to complain about even before using it. I really really really hope the icons and the style of the new status bar is not final. Come on guys, everything looks really stunning, but you can do really better than that icons and this clock style.
I played around with the Samsung GalaxyTab before, and i really like the size and the form factor of this 7 inch device. After testing Honeycomb for some time in the emulator i figured that it does not really do the best job on the 1024×600 resolution. There are still some things that just don’t scale very well. I really hope Google can work this out and their focus is not only on 10 inch tablets.
That’s it for the consumer perspective. I am pretty sure that there are more than enough people around who will write much more about it than me. Let’s got to another really interesting topic for me.
Honeycomb – what’s in there for me (as a developer)
Yaaaay, finally. I guess if you came here to read this post, you came for this. My take on the developer side of the Honeycomb additions. As mentioned before, Honeycomb is meant for larger screen devices (than phones) specifically for tablets. And it of course also ships with new APIs to leverage that screen size and the capabilities of the hardware that comes with larger devices (oooh Tegra 2 – i will love you ;)).
As a little warning, i did not yet work with the API itself – i just had no time yet (i needed at least some hours of sleep tonight). But i might write another post about the APIs itself – and maybe a first test application i write.
Therefore i can only write about some of my own rants and about what’s listed here: http://developer.android.com/sdk/android-3.0-highlights.html#DeveloperApis.
Alright, let’s go quickly over some cool new concepts that will be introduced with Honeycomb:
Andy Rubin already spoiled that one during the All Things Mobile conference. But by that time i knew this is something essential, this is something Google needs for Android to give it the capability to function on a smartphone, a TV and a tablet with NO (or almost none) code changes (at least that’s the plan for some point of time in the future).
Activity fragments are Activites broken up into multiple columns or parts, whatever you want to call it. To get a more visual idea just think of the most common iPad UI: A listview on the left and the content to the right of this listview. That’s essentially two fragments. The phone could only display one at a time, but the tablet and the TV could display two or maybe even more, who knows.
It creates the ability for true multipane UIs where each part can be controlled independently. It opens up for more modularity and is most certainly more flexible than what Samsung was doing on their GalaxyTab UIs. This new Activity fragment system is what i will have a look at first!
Redesigned UI widgets
For sure! We all have seen that one coming. The current UI – even on Gingerbread – does not really look like it could do the job on the tablet. Just have a look on some EditText entries on 7 or 10 inch android tablets. Almost all look ugly as hell.
I really like where Google is going with the UI on honeycomb – and remember it’s only the first version. If they keep up the pace they will refine and perfect it in a really short time.
Home screen widgets
Well, that’s pretty much a no-brainer. A lot of android applications come with custom Widgets to fill up you home screens with fast access to some of the applications functions. It’s a concept that not many other platforms have copied or imitated as of now. It’s something that definitely adds more complexity for the average joe user. But there are a lot of power users who really dig this kind of functionality for their home screens.
Developers can now use more UI elements than before for widget development. 3D Stacks, Grids, Lists, etc. can now be used to add new concepts to your widgets and hence the home screen itself!
As mentioned before, they introduced this pattern on several of their own applications and presented it during a lot of talks. They knew that they somehow had to fix the “menu button” issue on Android. It always was some kind of hidden functionality, not really discoverable for all the Android users out there. Merging menus and actions onto this Action Bar is a really good idea imho. I did not yet look at the API, but i am most certain that it will be as easy to use as normal Menus.
Graphics Graphics Graphics
You probably know that i did more than just one application powered by rich graphics or animations. As i wrote quite some OpenGL code in the last years i am totally in for some news about Graphics. Honeycomb introduces a new animation framework. And who else better than Chet Haase and Romain Guy (who wrote the book Filthy Rich Clients and currently work for Google) could fit the job of designing this particular library! I will definitely spend some quality time to find out what fancy animations i can create with that framework.
Besides animation Google did everything in their power to bring the Graphics processor finally to some good use on Android. They implemented hardware-accelerated 2D graphics (which means hardware-accelerated UI like on the iPhone) and give the developer the full control over it. Enable it for the whole application, only for some parts of it, or disable it – at your will.
With all that new rising mobile multicore processors there was a huge need to have a proper multicore ready mobile operating system. The new developer device – the Motorola Xoom – comes with a Nvidia Tegra 2 processor which by default has two cores. We will see even more cores coming as soon as the Tegra 3 hits (maybe next year). Support for that kind of computing power was imminent, it is essential to move on to new frontiers of mobile computing. The desktop has shown us an tremendous increase in computing power while reducing heat and power consumption at the same time. This change will bring more battery life and faster processing during the times we need it (games, nod nod). I am really excited to see what the next Apple processor for the coming iPad 2 looks like – if they are also going multicore or not.
And now to the best thing on the planet:
Compatibility with existing apps
Yep! Yes, it is a go! Compatibility is something that is written in BIG letters when it comes to the Android team and to Android development. Yes there is fragmentation, but that only means that SOME users don’t get the latest and greatest system image (i still do not have gingerbread as many others – see me complaining?). It DOES NOT mean that they can not run new applications. Because most certainly they can.
But whats even better is the support for already existing applications. Without any code changes (apart from an entry to the Android Manifest) existing apps SCALE to the new UI and integrate well with tablet specific Apps. And i am pretty sure that you can easily add just another .xml to deliver this specifc tablet UI as you can already target different screen orientations and sizes.
The SDK is definitely a preview, it feels like a preview, it functions like a preview. During my journey through this refreshingly new system i already uncovered several bugs – maybe they only exist in the emulator but who knows (other than for example Romain Guy).
The SDK and the emulator
Well, long story short. The emulator is still slow like hell, even worse, now that you need to run it at a tablet resolution (either 1024×600 or 1280×800) it’s even worse. You could use it with really low resolutions like 320×480 but everything higher is just unusable.
Nevertheless i run it for some time just to test things. As i said, some things are still broken and well, did i mention slow? 😉 …
Anyway you can use it to get an idea how honeycomb will feel like in your hands. Besides i also managed to do some screenshots while testing. And of course as i totally like 7 inch tablets i needed to run the emulator at 1024×600 just to get the right feeling… well it also let me discover quite some scaling bugs. Maybe you see something that wasn’t shown somewhere else before (probably not).
An opportunity ahead
Just to add something else that’s in there for me as an Android developer. The right time! As with the release of the iPad preview SDK, now is the time to jump on the train. There are almost no tablet specific apps for Android right now. And there is a huge opportunity to be one of the first to ship one as soon as the first tablets are ready. I really wish i had some time left right now to work on something like that. I hope that you do!
Two things. First, i can’t await my own REAL honeycomb tablet. After playing with it around in the emulator it just feels right. It still has some issues (in the emulator), sure, but Android always looks and feels much better on a real device than in this really slow and buggy emulator. I definitely look out for MWC 2011 and hope for a nice 7 inch Android Tablet to spend my money on.
Second, i really would like to work on some tablet focused Android applications. Let’s see what the coming months bring for me. Only time will tell. But i have high hopes and am pretty sure that something will come up and i find some time for it.
That’s it for now pals. I hope you are as excited as me and if not head over to http://d.android.com/sdk/android-3.0-highlights.html#UserFeatures to get some hcomb taste.