Friday, October 21, 2011

Android 4.0 Announced, but Don't Get Too Excited!

Last Tuesday, Google and Samsung executives got up on stage in Hong Kong to announce Android 4.0, known as Ice Cream Sandwich and to announce the first Ice Cream Sandwich phone, formally called the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. The hardware of the Galaxy Nexus integrates very well with some new features of Ice Cream Sandwich, including NFC. Near Field Communication is a protocol that is now integrated into Android 4.0 that allows users to transfer data between devices by “beaming” the two devices, or bumping them together to transfer data. Almost any type of data can be transferred including contact information, maps, applications, website addresses, and more. Although this seems like a revolution in sharing information, you must consider the prerequisites for this to work. For one, both devices must have an NFC chip inside, and both devices have to be running Ice Cream Sandwich. While this is a cool idea and works well in theory, I have to really think hard about a solid use case for this feature.

Google also announced that with Ice Cream Sandwich, the “home” and “back” physical buttons that you commonly see with Android devices today, will become virtual, and on screen, in any application. Also, the “menu” and “search” buttons will cease to exist at all. Web and phone search will now work through the search bar at the top of the screen, by tapping on the microphone icon to dictate your searches, or typing it out through the keyboard. And anyone who likes the menu button will be disappointed, since there is no virtual menu button, but instead, Google is relying on developers to build similar functionality right into their applications. These rules may or may not apply to all devices, but are applied to the Galaxy Nexus, the first Android 4.0 phone. This way of interacting with devices has been before with Android 3.0 tablets, but has never been seen on an Android phone up until now. The buttons will work just as they do in Honeycomb. If you decide to rotate the device, the buttons will rotate as well. As expected, Google will be dealing with a lot of scrutiny for changing the way people will, going forward, interact with their phones. I, like most people, don’t favor these changes very well because I did like the physical buttons that most Android phones today ship with.

The core Google applications that ship with most Android devices today, such as Gmail and Google Calendar, have been updated as well to work with Ice Cream Sandwich, and at the same time, have been improved overall, and have added some major new features, such as offline Gmail, which will allow you to see all emails in the past 30 days, offline, or without using carrier data. This will address some of the issues and concerns that customers have had including the fact that the GMail and Calendar apps were lacking in various ways. Unfortunately, most of the features unveiled in the core Google applications, are suspiciously similar to what Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 platform has had for a while, and you can tell from the start, just by observing the interface, that Google has been influenced by the success of the Windows Phone “Metro” style UI. Now it is fair to say that Google didn’t completely clone Windows Phone’s “People” application, and to be fair, Windows Phone’s implementation of the same features is much better, not only in the contacts application.

Microsoft’s Windows Phone contacts application left, and Ice Cream Sandwich’s contacts app on right, demonstrates [suspiciously] close similarities between the two contact apps.

The largest concern I have with Ice Cream Sandwich is that older devices, such as the one year old, original HTC Evo, will not receive the upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich. Inevitably, but unfortunately, the manufacturers and wireless carriers are not likely to support their customers with older phones, as the manufacturers push them to buy new devices. That fact clearly foreshadows the inevitable, which is that the Android platform will only become more fragmented.

Largely, Ice Cream Sandwich is a very big upgrade and a much needed one, and overall, the interface changes are for the better, but things like making the home and back buttons virtual, will just leave customers who have come to know and love physical buttons, upset. I clearly didn’t mention all the features of this major release, but you can get a much clearer sense of what features Android 4.0 brings at the Android website ( Moreover, Google is lacking innovative ideas, and decided that cloning Windows Phone features was the way to go. I will leave it up to you to determine whether that’s acceptable or, not.

Ice Cream Sandwich will start shipping with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which is set to ship sometime in November, since Samsung hasn’t confirmed any more specific details about pricing and availability. However, it has been confirmed that Verizon Wireless will receive the Galaxy Nexus. It is up to manufacturers to upgrade their existing smartphone and tablet devices, but hopefully, even the older devices will eventually receive the upgrade. 

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