Android’s newest generation, Jelly Bean, is nearly here

Last week, just before Google I/O started in San Francisco,I’d speculated that we’d hear about three things:  1) Jelly Bean (aka Android 4.1); 2) a newNexus-branded tablet; and 3) word on the future of Google TV.

 Well, guess what? Allthree were dealt with in the first day’s keynote, to a greater or lesserextent. And for all three, we’ll start to see actual products within a fewweeks. Let’s talk about Jelly Bean first, and then I’ll talk about Google’s newhardware plays in tomorrow’s entry.

First things first, and this is going to irritate a lot ofpeople: Jelly Bean is going to start to be available in mid-July on selectAndroid Devices, including Google’s new Nexus 7 tablet. The first batch ofover-the-air updates will roll out to the Galaxy Nexus, Nexus S and MotorolaXoom, and will become available to the open source community at the same time.Everyone else? Later (big surprise).

What that effectively means is that a lot of users who arestuck on Gingerbread or Honeycomb devices may still be waiting for an update toIce Cream Sandwich that’s now….well, obsolete.

While it’s true that it will likely take a while for mostother manufacturers to get Jelly Bean updates ready to head out the door, itcreates an awkward situation where a lot of users are likely to just up-and-bailon their current Android devices sothey can skip ahead a generation or two. For tablet users, that seeminglyradical decision is a whole lot easier, since Google’s new Jelly Bean-poweredtablet starts at just $199. (Again, more on this tomorrow.)

Okay, so what’s actually new in Jelly Bean?

First up is something called Project Butter, which is aseries of software and performance optimizations, designed to make theinterface faster and more responsive. While there’s no shiny new app fortypical users here, keen-eyed Android fans will notice reduced latency on thescreen. It’ll be smoooooth.

Next up, widget fans will love the new widget management –now when you drag a widget from one screen to the other, icons will flow out ofthe way to accommodate the widget. If the widget is too big to fit on a screen,it will automatically size down to fit, unlike before.

At about this point in the keynote, many were likelythinking, “Where’s the good stuff, already?” And I have to admit that I foundit a bit strange that the Google team buried this next feature three pointsinto the keynote, because this is the one I’d have been screaming from thehilltops about: on-device voice dictation.

If you’ve been trying out voice dictation on Ice Cream Sandwich,you’ll probably know that it sends all voice data upstream to Google’s serversfor decoding to text; if you have a lousy connection, your voice dictationexperience is also lousy.

But with Jelly Bean, Google claims to have shrunk down thepart of the application that used to reside on the server, and placed it righton the Android device. So now, you can do your voice dictation directly on yourphone or tablet, without having to be connected to the Internet. Assuming itworks at least as good as the server-assisted voice dictation used to, that’s amajor leap forward in usability.

Next up are improvements to the camera app, which now allowsquicker review of photos you’ve just taken. Snap the shutter and the new photoheads off to the side of the screen – just swipe in that direction to reviewit, share it, etc. And with a pinch gesture, you can see more of your photos ina roll-style format, including a pane that shows the live camera view, whichyou can swipe back to to resume taking pictures.

In Ice Cream Sandwich, Google introduced Beam, which allowedNear Field Communications-equipped Android devices to share information simplyby tapping them against each other. Now, the technology has been expanded tosend photos and video, as well as containing the capability of Bluetoothauto-pairing simply by tapping another Bluetooth accessory that’s alsoNFC-equipped. (Considering the relative lack of NFC devices, this feature stillseems a bit like magic. As more NFC devices make their way into the market itwill be interesting to see just how much these functions catch on.)

One other area that’s been updated in Jelly Bean isNotifications – now, they not only carry pictures of things like your contacts oralbum art (where appropriate), they’re also more interactive. Swipe down withtwo fingers to expand a notification, or swipe up with two fingers to collapseit back down.

You can also do more when tapping on them in the drop-downnotifications panel, including: returning a call right from a missed callnotification; reading a full email; or responding to a calendar notification.  In some cases, you may not even have to enterthe apps themselves to go about your daily business.

As befitting a company that got its start in the world ofsearch, Jelly Bean also features new search capabilities. When you search, itnow returns results in a card-based format, whether you’re searching by typingor by using voice dictation to ask the question using natural language. So ifyou ask a question, the answer will pop up on a card, accompanied by graphicsand photos associated with the answer.

There’s also a new feature called Google Now, which tapsinto your search history and your location history to try to pre-emptively giveyou information that you’re going to need, even if you don’t ask for it.

So, your device will know your usual driving route to work,and can notify you that there’s delays on the road ahead – again, even if youdon’t specifically request it to do so – and suggest an alternate route. Or itcan deliver sports scores automatically based on the teams you’ve beensearching for on Google.

Personally, I find this a bit invasive — even creepy – despitethe intention to deliver useful information. There are a whole pile ofimplications to this type of service, but I’ll dwell on this in greater detailelsewhere.

As mentioned off the top, Jelly Bean will start to ship outon (and to) select devices as of the middle of July. Those in the Googledeveloper community can get their hands on dev kits right away, however, byheading over to and downloading it.


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