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

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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