By the numbers, things should be swell for Android. Google's mobile operating system holds a massive lead in the U.S. smart phone market (52 percent to 29 percent for Apple's iOS's, according to the NPD Group), and its Android Market has now hosted half a million apps (even if 37 percent no longer appear there).
But Google's buggy venture into tablet software, Android 3.0 Honeycomb, has drawn few users. Wireless carriers have defaced Android phones with mediocre apps that users can't easily remove. And rivals like iOS have smartly copied Android's better features.
Google is responding with the biggest rewrite to Android since its debut in 2008. Android 4.0 — Ice Cream Sandwich in Google's dessert-centric sequence of release names — merges phone and tablet versions of Android, rearranges basic controls and indulges in some sensible borrowing of its own. I got a walkthrough of "ICS" Tuesday afternoon here in Mountainview, Calif., from Google mobile-engineering vice president Hiroshi Lockheimer.
Ice Cream Sandwich's most visible ingredient is its rearranged buttons. Instead of the traditional array of physical home, back, menu and search controls, ICS phones such as the Verizon Wireless 4G LTE Galaxy Nexus phone will only feature onscreen home, back and "recent" buttons. (When you run an older app that expects a menu button, ICS crams it into the right of that lineup, with search moved to toolbars and menus.)
That's a risky move: After three years of programming people to expect the same lineup of icons, Google wants to reset things?
But the recent button's thumbnail views of open apps finally makes multitasking as elegant as in HP's now-abandoned webOS, complete with the ability to suspend an unwanted app by sliding its thumbnail offscreen.
Widgets, those handy interactive panels on the screen that let you check your calendar or see Twitter updates without jumping into those apps, also become more obvious in ICS, which lists them next to your apps.
If an ICS phone ships with carrier-preinstalled bloatware, you can "disable" those apps, hiding them and preventing them from running without erasing them. Lockheimer, however, didn't rule out carriers overriding that limit.
Behind the screen, ICS should extend battery life with tweaks like doing routine online tasks in batches to minimize network use. But he wouldn't put a number on that improvement, saying it would depend on individual devices.
Other ICS upgrades reside in individual apps:
– The browser lets you save pages for offline reading.
– The People app, formerly Contacts, shows friends' social-media updates inline–Google Plus is built in, but Facebook can plug into it too–much like the corresponding app in Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 and HTC's Sense Android interface.
– The camera app is supposed to cut down on shutter lag and adds an instant-panorama mode and silly photo-booth effects.
– You can unlock an ICS phone by letting its front-facing camera recognize your face; you can also take pictures from the lock screen, as in iOS 5.
– If you're worried about data overages (you probably shouldn't be), you can see which apps have used the most bandwidth.
– You can share whatever's on the screen, such as a Web page or a contacts entry, with another ICS user whose phone supports the rarely-used "near-field communication" standard by tapping the two phones together.
The worst part of ICS? Your phone may never get it. Manufacturers and carriers have to deliver this update to users; only users of the "pure Google" Nexus S are assured of an update, while Lockheimer said Google has ruled out its Nexus One. That, sadly, doesn't depart from Android as we've known it.
Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery