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Google’s Android 4.0 Development Plan: Make Android Prettier

Google (NSDQ: GOOG) took the wrapping off its Ice Cream Sandwich Tuesday night, unveiled the latest edition of Android on Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus phone during a joint event produced by the two companies in Hong Kong. The goal for the new version? To make Android into a something that people really, really want to use as opposed to settling for the phone that’s available as a buy-one-get-one-free at the wireless store.

It’s a bit of a cliche at this point that Android is an engineer’s mobile operating system designed by engineers for engineers: even Steve Ballmer got in a zinger to that effect in the hours before Google’s evening press conference (which started at 10am Hong Kong time). But user-interface developments and new features shown off Tuesday by Google’s Matias Duarte and Hugo Barra reveal a mindset at Google that wanted to focus much more on design elements that are pleasing to the eye.

For example, Google revamped its navigation system on the Galaxy Nexus to do away with physical buttons, much in the same way Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) changed the way people think about hardware buttons with the launch of the iPhone in 2007. It introduced a new font called Roboto that is a bit softer than the current font in use. Users switch between application screens by swiping back and forth rather than hitting an application launcher to bring up a single list.

“We want the users to put the phone back in their pocket feeling satisfied,” said Andy Rubin, Google’s Android chief, during the event.

Mobile industry observers were quick to note that many of the features in Ice Cream Sandwich borrow ideas from other mobile operating systems, such as the navigation mechanism (similar to WebOS, which Duarte helped develop) and the photo display (which looked an awful lot like Windows Phone 7). Still, it’s clear that Google took a hard look at Android when developing Ice Cream Sandwich and decided to clean up its act.

While many of the features are impressive, it bears noting that the Galaxy Nexus is part of that special “Nexus” device category that wireless carriers can’t touch. Verizon and NTT DoCoMo (NYSE: DCM) will carry the phone, Samsung announced, but unlike other Android-based phones carriers can’t set limits on which features and applications Nexus owners can have. In other words, non-Nexus phones based on Ice Cream Sandwich may look very different.

But a few features will likely survive, such as facial recognition technology that unlocks the phone based on a reading of the owner’s face. The feature didn’t work in the demo, so stay tuned as to whether this becomes a desired feature or a huge annoyance, but if workable could be a very interesting answer to the problem of device security.

The phone will become available in November in several countries, but Google and Samsung didn’t announce specific details, and also failed to mention how much it would cost.

And Google also failed to mention anything about Android tablet development other than a throwaway line from Barra that the Android 4.0 software-development kit would let developers create apps for both phones and tablets. Granted, this was an event to introduce a specific phone, but Samsung makes Android tablets too. What’s most likely is that Google chose another hardware company to be the launch partner for Ice Cream Sandwich tablets, perhaps the same company it would like to bring under its own wing.

Here’s a video overview produced by Google that highlights some of the new features.