Google on Tuesday began rolling out the Honeycomb 3.1 update, and the search giant also gave its army of developers a sneak peek at the next version of Android, code-named Ice Cream Sandwich.
Honeycomb 3.1, currently available for Verizon Xoom tablet customers, improves switching between tasks using new technology that automatically shuts down and restores applications transparently, said Hugo Barra, director of Android product management, in a keynote speech at Google's I/O conference in San Francisco.
"You will never run out of memory or be asked to quit in order to watch something else," Barra told the roughly 5,000 attendees who crammed into the Moscone West keynote hall. The ensuing roar or approval showed that this was welcome news.
Honeycomb 3.1 lets developers stretch widgets horizontally or vertically by using just a few lines of XML, and it also enables Android devices to act as USB hosts, Barra said. The latter allows users to import photos directly from a digital camera to a tablet PC, and also allows for the use of keyboards, mice and external game controllers.
Google hasn't yet released Honeycomb for phones, only for tablets. But this summer, Google TV will receive the Honeycomb 3.1 update along with Android Market. This will allow developers to build applications for Google TV using the same SDK they use for Honeycomb apps, according to Barra.
Google is positioning Ice Cream Sandwich as a unified OS for both tablets and smartphones. Google plans to make Ice Cream Sandwich open source by the end of the year, something it hasn't yet done with Honeycomb. Android Chief Andy Rubin acknowledged that Google chose not to open source Honeycomb in order to get it on the market more quickly.
"We took a shortcut and did not make it available for phones," Rubin said." We thought that open sourcing it at that point would be difficult, because people would try to wedge it into phones and that would lead to a bad user experience."
Ice Cream Sandwich will maintain the holographic UI, widgets and advanced applications of Honeycomb, Android engineer Mike Claren said in the keynote. He gave a demo of a feature called Virtual Camera Operator, which automatically determines which party is speaking during a video chat and zooms in and focuses on their face.
"High quality apps are the lifeblood for Android," Claren said. "We want one OS that runs everywhere."
Google expects Honeycomb tablets to appeal to both consumers and business users. To attract the latter group, Google has added encryption and upgrades to core applications in Android 3.1, including new calendar features, said Hiroshi Lockheimer, director of Android engineering, in a Q&A after the keynote. Other new features are on the way in Ice Cream Sandwich, but Google isn't yet ready to discuss them.
Meanwhile, Google unleashed a slew of stunning Android statistics: The company has surpassed the 100 million mark in Android activations worldwide and there are now 36 Android OEMs, 215 carriers and 450,000 developers. Google says there are now more than 200,000 applications available in the Android Market.
At last year's I/O, Google said it was activating 100,000 Android devices daily; that figure is now 400,000 devices daily.