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Honeycomb: What You Need to Know (It’s Not Just For Tablets)

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Google (s goog) today held a press event to show off Android 3.0, or Honeycomb: the mobile platform specifically designed for tablet devices. I watched the event while Om live-blogged it and clearly, it was about the platform and developers, not about devices. That makes sense, because Google doesn’t build devices; it will be up to tablet manufacturers to present their devices and share details on pricing and availability.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be interested in what Google presented today because the “Is it for tablets, smartphones or both?” question has more of an answer now. Hugo Barra, Google’s director of mobile products, told us that while Honeycomb is Google’s touch and tablet OS, the company will be working to bring it to mobile phones. For now, it’s highly optimized specifically for tablets, and no phone-specific details were shared, although we’ve seen smartphone resolution support in the Honeycomb SDK.

Here’s a rundown of what you need to know:

  • Smarter widgets. These information-at-a-glance apps are based on collections of data, which can be grouped and there are several new navigation methods supported. Expect to see more information faster, without opening up an app, as a result.
  • Improved notifications. Gone is the pull-down notification shade used by earlier Android versions. Instead, notifications pop up much like Growl on Mac OS X (s aapl) or natively in Windows 7 (s msft) at the bottom right of the display in Honeycomb. Notification actions seem richer in terms of the data they present (avatars of friends starting a chat, for example) and the actions you can take on them, which means less tapping to get things done.
  • New graphics engine. As tablets and phones can support more powerful processors, Honeycomb is boosting the graphics capability with its new Renderscript engine. This brings fluidity and advanced visual 3-D effects, much like Apple’s Core Animation. Apps with collections of media — think YouTube and e-book readers — can leverage these effects for a more polished, immersive experience. Renderscript will also bring 3-D games that are visually stunning: one area where Android has severely lacked when compared to iOS.
  • Application fragments. This is clearly a developer bit, but will help end-users when it comes to application navigation and interface. Apps can consist of small fragments that work together seamlessly. The new Gmail app for Honeycomb is a perfect example: The Inbox view will change to a message view as needed, with different panes or fragments sliding on- or off-screen. This approach gives programmers new ways to use virtual space on a limited screen, meaning you’ll see applications with improved and more intuitive interfaces. Contrast that to the Menu option and back button in Android on smartphones and you can envision the benefit fragments will bring.
  • Slick camera interface. This is one of the features I expect will make its way into smartphones, even if only partially. The new camera interface exposes settings in a rotary dial, making it easier to manipulate photo settings. Surely the larger screen area of a tablet helps make this possible, but I’m imagining that on a smartphone you could have the dial rotate off the screen as new controls rotate on to it.
  • Video chat in Google Talk. This feature has been long in coming and I can’t see why it won’t find its way to higher-end smartphones. The video quality during Google’s demonstration showed some artifacts and sync issues, but that could easily be due to network variables. Given that Google Talk video is solid on desktops and laptops, I anticipate Google will deliver a high level of quality on tablets, and possibly smartphones thanks to dual-core processor support and improved graphic chips available for both device classes.

  • Simple multitasking. The most recently used and currently running apps are easily accessible in Honeycomb. They’re also easy to see on a larger-screened device, so while Google may improve multitasking on Android smartphones, it will have to use a different method due to the smaller displays on a handset.
  • Better app discovery, installs and management. Along with Honeycomb, Google launched a web version of the Android Market, making it easier to find and install applications. If you like an app, you can share it via Twitter integration. And apps can be installed over the air to an Android device; that applies to smartphones of today and tablets of tomorrow. I’ve already tested the web store, and with a few clicks, I had an application beamed to my Nexus One phone through the wireless web. The web store also keeps a history of purchases and helps manage multiple Android devices. It reminds me of Amazon’s Kindle (s amzn) web management tools: simple and effective.

  • In-App purchases and local currency. This is another feature of the improved Android Market, so it’s not specific to Honeycomb. That means smartphone owners will benefit from the new in-app purchase functions and support for local currencies. While these improvements will help developers potentially earn more revenues, they enhance the end-user experience as well. Want to buy additional game levels on the fly? No problem, because it’s a simple, seamless experience. And consumers no longer have to worry about currency conversion rates either. Android developers are already raving about these new features, with hopes of boosting sales.

As a user of Android devices on a daily basis, I’m generally impressed with Honeycomb’s official debut and the improvements to the Android Market. But stepping out of my end-user shoes for a second, I realize there’s another perspective to today’s Honeycomb event, namely, nothing major was shown today that wasn’t either expected or previously announced as a “coming soon” bit from Google in the past. The web-based Android Market, for example, was first mentioned at last May’s Google I/O event.

In other words, I like what I saw and heard from today’s event, but it underscores that Google is still playing a game of platform catch-up with Apple’s iOS. And in most of the areas where it has caught up, it has only caught up to where Apple’s iOS was last April with the launch of the iPad. Today was a good start, but there’s more work to do if Google Honeycomb devices are expected to compete for consumer dollars against the lineup of Apple iOS handhelds and tablets.

With additional reporting from Om Malik.

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41 Responses to “Honeycomb: What You Need to Know (It’s Not Just For Tablets)”

    • Please stop trolling

      Return to your techcrunch trolling. . . it’s not wanted nor needed here. You seem to have an issue hunting out Android articles just to make these comments. Seriously, it just makes you and Apple fans look very poor.

    • Obviously Google is playing coy with platform plans between smartphones and tablets – for now it wants to build up momentum for tablets, since it has little. But I still believe that most of the Honeycomb bits will appear on smartphones within the next 6-9 months, if not sooner.

      • Engadget did an interview with Matias Duarte at CES (just search for it) and he stated that what we are seeing in Honeycomb is the future of Android, all android devices. Certainly not everything will translate 100% to smaller screens but from what he said Android will not have one fork for tablets and one for phones. At least that was my take on what he said.

  1. “And in most of the areas where it has caught up, it has only caught up to where Apple’s iOS was last April with the launch of the iPad.”


    Care to elaborate on Android’s short-comings compared to iOS? Nevermind Gingerbread. Even Froyo with something like HTC Sense is immensely on par with iOS4.

    • I’m specifically talking about Google’s tablet platform, i.e.: they just now have a more viable one while Apple has had one since the iPad launch. Subtle, but important difference. And I totally agree about HTC Sense: every other week I’m flashing my Nexus One to add it or not depending on the weather. But HTC Sense isn’t Google’s product, nor is it available on non-HTC devices, so it’s not entirely fair to include that when comparing Android to iOS in my opinion.

      • Its not the first *real* Android tablet that will beat the iPad. It’s the one that comes out a month after that, or a month after that, or a month after that, or…you get the idea.
        Faster, small iterations will win in the end. Each new iPad/iPhone will be superceded by Android devices within 3-6mths. Hardware changes alone will ensure that. That leaves 6-9 months for other devices to outsell them – and then there is the wider choice for each niche. 80% of users will only use up to 20% of the features in a device/piece of software. Unfortunately for fruit companies, it’s not the same 20%. I like being able to devices. It allows me to create *my* phone and reduce the complexity of my interaction with it. Each of my family members only do a few things with each of their devices – but they are not the same things for each of us. The customisation that Android affords us means that when you open our phones, you would think we were on different OS’s – yet everything is compatible ( yes, there is some fragmentation issues – but with so many apps you can usually find a similar one to do the job. Fragmentation for the user is less of an issue if you are after functionality. For developers…well)

        Google is way ahead on its integration with the cloud. So, I cant see how anyone can say Apple is currently ahead. They just have a different mindset. Once you get used to it, it’s hard to want to go back. Most people buy a new phone in less than two years, less if they destroy it, buy a phone, punch in your login – everything just works. Buy your apps online at a desktop. Besides, if I go back to Apple now, I will begin to lock myself in to their ecosystem (iTunes etc) – big risk, no choice, why start.

        As for HTC Sense well how can you not include it? Isn’t it Android that makes it, what you yourself are doing, possible?

        I apologise for the length of this. Yes, I am an Android fan. Android is just so friendly – how can you not like the little guy?

      • @brucko
        “So, I cant see how anyone can say Apple is currently ahead. ”

        You can walk into one of many stores today and buy an iPad. Apple are ahead. They have a shipping product and have had one for 9 months. Google have some “technology demonstration events”. See the difference?

    • Hamranhansenhansen

      It has zero devices and zero installed base and zero full-size apps. It has no native C API. Tablets are mobile PC’s. PC’s have 10 inch screens and full-size native C apps. And they have a user base that inspires 3rd party software development. There is a long, long way to go for Honeycomb. iPad launched last April with a thousand full-size apps and had 10,000 within a couple of months. You could give a Keynote presentation with an iPad on day one.

  2. Zack Lee Wright

    Now that proper tablet OS released Android can now compete better with iPad. At least better than the sluggish Samsung Galaxy Tab which was kinda rushed to market and it shows. Kudos to Samsung for coming clean with the real sales data which shows that the Galaxy Tab sales are much much lower than previously believed. Also don’t discount the fact that the Samsung Galaxy Tab has an extremely high return rate as well.
    It was a nice attempt but pales next to iPad-1.

    I think the real tablet war will begin with iPad2 vs. Moto Xoom tablet. Now that should be interesting. Honeycomb can finally tap into some decent hardware and show its stuff. If it has enuff to beat the iPad2 remains to be seen, especially in sales.
    If there is one thing I have seen in the tech industry over the last 4 decades is that the “best” technology does NOT win a lot of the time. So even if Android proves to be superior to iOS in time that does not mean it will dominate or even cause a decline in iOS devices. We should know by the end of this year who will reign over the tablet space and my guess will be Apple with 40+ million iPads sold. I would actually be shocked if Android could grab 10 million with Honeycomb tabs only having about 6 months of sales time available.

  3. Reading this article makes me wonder if we have been watching the same conference, it is clear and obvious that Android is more advanced than iOS in so many ways, the tight integration with Google’s Platform/Cloud based services is unmatched.

  4. Johndeuf

    “And in most of the areas where it has caught up, it has only caught up to where Apple’s iOS was last April with the launch of the iPad. Today was a good start, but there’s more work to do if Google Honeycomb devices are expected to compete for consumer dollars against the lineup of Apple iOS handhelds and tablets.”

    Are you kidding ? iOs is just about push button OS interface with panels.. is it what you call ahead ? … Here with HoneyComb we will have true touch OS with dynamics widgets, adaptative intervace, no intrusive notifications…

    • “Here with HoneyComb we will have true touch OS with dynamics widgets, adaptative intervace, no intrusive notifications…”

      With ZERO customers at present. Zero real-world usage. Zero real-world battery proof. Just empty promises until the vaporware ships.

  5. Bocephus Williams

    For a platform that is 2 years older than iOS, Android sure is have a rough time trying to keep up with Apple mobile OS. So maybe they finally catch up to iPad 1 now a FULL YEAR LATER. I just don’t understand why the Google takes so long and they don’t even do the hardware unlike Apple.
    If they don’t speed up their dev time I think those Cupertino engineers are gonna smoke Android devices with the new iPad 2 and iPhone5 Superphone.
    Since Apple is so much bigger than Google why don’t they just buy them and terminate this Android rodent that keeps biting on their tail. Prolly anti-trust issues I assumes.

    • Android was released on October 2008, iOS was released July 2007. That makes iOS (then iPhone OS) more than a year older than Android.
      Add the fact that iOS was mostly based on Apple’s already existing Mac OS-X, and could make use of their existing iTunes payment platform for apps, I think Apple had a considerable head start.

      • Anton Chigurh

        I believe Google bought Android in 2005 and thus had full control of development long before iPhone was released. I think what happened was Android developers where stunned and caught with “their pants down” (which exposed their shortcomings) by the iPhone OS released in 2007 and have been scrambling ever since to “catch up”. Just my opinion.

  6. Lucian Armasu

    Kevin, I’ve had a feeling since Gingerbread that Google is holding back features for one major event. For a while I thought it’s going to be the Honeycomb event, but then I heard Google is preparing something special for Google I/O. And come to think about it, that’s their major event of the year anyway. I think Google is trying to make I/O the major event of the year for Android, as well.

    This means they must be holding back on most or at least some features we’re not already expecting and on which they’ve been working on for the past year, for the I/O event. I do hope it also means the version coming out at I/O will be the one that unifies the phone OS with the tablet OS, but we’ll see.

    Hopefully, it will be presented by Vic Gundotra once again, because I loved his presentation last year, and he’s doing a much better job than all the others in making it a fun event instead of a boring one, like this one seemed to be. I rewatched the Google I/O event from last year for a bit, and he’s making everyone either laugh or applaud every 2 minutes or so.

    I think he was a big part of the reason why Froyo was such an exciting release, just like Steve Jobs makes Apple’s product introductions a lot more interesting than otherwise. I’d be very dissapointed