Google Officially Unveils Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich)

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Google just offered the first official look at its Android 4.0 operating system, Ice Cream Sandwich, at a press event with Samsung in Hong Kong. Though the event was held to announce the first device to run Ice Cream Sandwich, the Galaxy Nexus smartphone, it was the world’s first glimpse of the operating system and how it will work across both smartphones and tablets.

Ice Cream Sandwich LogoIn an effort to stress function over flash, Google has given Android’s UI a major overhaul for Ice Cream Sandwich. Probably one of the most major changes is that there are no longer any buttons for navigation, capacitive or otherwise. Instead, the buttons are displayed right on the screen as part of the new layout. Other changes to the UI include the ability to create folders simply by stacking contacts or apps on top of each other, resizable widgets, and a Favorites tray at the bottom of the screen, to which you can add any apps, folders, etc.  There is also a recent apps menu which pulls up just that, but more importantly, it’s from this menu that you can manually stop any application that is currently running in the background.

There have been a lot of sweeping improvements and tweaks to the OS, including the ability to finally take screen shots by simultaneously pressing the power and volume buttons. Also, Ice Cream Sandwich has a very swipe-centric design, with swipes to the side serving multiple purposes throughout various scenarios and apps. For example, you can now swipe through dates and events in your calendar, you can swipe to sift through the messages in your inbox, and you even swipe apps to the side from the recent apps menu to shut them down.

Among some of the new features of Ice Cream Sandwich, there are now notifications, which can be customized so you only receive them from certain apps. For added convenience, the notifications can also be previewed even from the lock screen. Like killing processes in the recent apps menu, you can dismiss them with a simple swipe gesture off to the side. And for those that don’t want to bother with locking their phone using a password, Ice Cream Sandwich will feature face recognition to unlock your phone, as previously rumored.

Beam Sharing
One of the other major features is the introduction of Android Beam, which uses near field communications (NFC) to allow users to exchange information simply by tapping their phones or tablets together. After granting permission via an on-screen notifications, users can easily exchange webpages, contacts, maps, locations, etc.

The camera has also seen some nice improvements, including face detection/tracking and the ability to take time lapse videos and panoramic shots. A single tap on a photo provides you with a list of social media outlets through which to share it, and the photo editing software has seen a number of additional features: touch-up, adjust angle, remove red-eye, and the ability to automatically save copies of the original when editing.

In terms of some of the Google software, the browser and Gmail apps have undergone a few tweaks. The browser now has an option in the pull-down menu to request the desktop version of any site (since the default action is to go straight to mobile), and it also allows you to save pages for offline viewing. Gmail, meanwhile, now has an action bar (a feature that is also found in some other apps) that has single-click to compose and other options that change depending on context, and the app also allows users to view and search the last 30 days’ worth of messages, whether you’re online or not.

And good news for manufacturers: Ice Cream Sandwich will be open source, which means that any company that wants to make devices that run the operating system are free to do so. And the SDK is available now, so plenty of people can start tinkering with it right away and learning more about the newest operating system from Google.

Google LogoICS and Tablets
Indeed, it seems like there is a fair amount of interest in the Android operating system, as Andy Rubin, Senior VP of Mobile at Google, said at AsiaD last night that there are approximately “6 million Android tablets out there” running Google services. “It’s not 30 million,” he admitted, referring to iPad sales, but he called it a “healthy” start.

But he also made an intriguing statement regarding the universal nature of Ice Cream Sandwich and the way it will run on smartphones and tablets. When asked about the current lack of tablet-optimized apps and whether or not there would be more once Ice Cream Sandwich was released, he responded with, “I don’t think there should be apps specific to a tablet… if someone makes an ICS app it’s going to run on phones and it’s going to run on tablets.” He maintained that apps will still be optimized for larger screens, but they will work like they do with Honeycomb, with a single app scaling differently to the appropriate screen size.

As for you consumers who are wondering when you’ll get to enjoy the official update to Ice Cream Sandwich on the Android devices that you currently have, Rubin also said that it will begin rolling out “a couple weeks” after the launch of the new Galaxy Nexus. The smartphone is scheduled to be released sometime in November.

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