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 new
Nexus-branded tablet; and 3) word on the future of Google TV.
Well, guess what? All
three were dealt with in the first day’s keynote, to a greater or lesser
extent. And for all three, we’ll start to see actual products within a few
weeks. Let’s talk about Jelly Bean first, and then I’ll talk about Google’s new
hardware plays in tomorrow’s entry.
First things first, and this is going to irritate a lot of
people: Jelly Bean is going to start to be available in mid-July on select
Android Devices, including Google’s new Nexus 7 tablet. The first batch of
over-the-air updates will roll out to the Galaxy Nexus, Nexus S and Motorola
Xoom, 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 are
stuck on Gingerbread or Honeycomb devices may still be waiting for an update to
Ice Cream Sandwich that’s now….well, obsolete.
While it’s true that it will likely take a while for most
other manufacturers to get Jelly Bean updates ready to head out the door, it
creates an awkward situation where a lot of users are likely to just up-and-bail
on their current Android devices so
they can skip ahead a generation or two. For tablet users, that seemingly
radical decision is a whole lot easier, since Google’s new Jelly Bean-powered
tablet 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 a
series of software and performance optimizations, designed to make the
interface faster and more responsive. While there’s no shiny new app for
typical users here, keen-eyed Android fans will notice reduced latency on the
screen. 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 of
the 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 likely
thinking, “Where’s the good stuff, already?” And I have to admit that I found
it a bit strange that the Google team buried this next feature three points
into the keynote, because this is the one I’d have been screaming from the
hilltops 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 servers
for decoding to text; if you have a lousy connection, your voice dictation
experience is also lousy.
But with Jelly Bean, Google claims to have shrunk down the
part of the application that used to reside on the server, and placed it right
on the Android device. So now, you can do your voice dictation directly on your
phone or tablet, without having to be connected to the Internet. Assuming it
works at least as good as the server-assisted voice dictation used to, that’s a
major leap forward in usability.
Next up are improvements to the camera app, which now allows
quicker review of photos you’ve just taken. Snap the shutter and the new photo
heads off to the side of the screen – just swipe in that direction to review
it, share it, etc. And with a pinch gesture, you can see more of your photos in
a roll-style format, including a pane that shows the live camera view, which
you can swipe back to to resume taking pictures.
In Ice Cream Sandwich, Google introduced Beam, which allowed
Near Field Communications-equipped Android devices to share information simply
by tapping them against each other. Now, the technology has been expanded to
send photos and video, as well as containing the capability of Bluetooth
auto-pairing simply by tapping another Bluetooth accessory that’s also
NFC-equipped. (Considering the relative lack of NFC devices, this feature still
seems a bit like magic. As more NFC devices make their way into the market it
will be interesting to see just how much these functions catch on.)
One other area that’s been updated in Jelly Bean is
Notifications – now, they not only carry pictures of things like your contacts or
album art (where appropriate), they’re also more interactive. Swipe down with
two fingers to expand a notification, or swipe up with two fingers to collapse
it back down.
You can also do more when tapping on them in the drop-down
notifications panel, including: returning a call right from a missed call
notification; reading a full email; or responding to a calendar notification. In some cases, you may not even have to enter
the apps themselves to go about your daily business.
As befitting a company that got its start in the world of
search, Jelly Bean also features new search capabilities. When you search, it
now returns results in a card-based format, whether you’re searching by typing
or by using voice dictation to ask the question using natural language. So if
you ask a question, the answer will pop up on a card, accompanied by graphics
and photos associated with the answer.
There’s also a new feature called Google Now, which taps
into your search history and your location history to try to pre-emptively give
you 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 you
don’t specifically request it to do so – and suggest an alternate route. Or it
can deliver sports scores automatically based on the teams you’ve been
searching for on Google.
Personally, I find this a bit invasive -- even creepy – despite
the intention to deliver useful information. There are a whole pile of
implications to this type of service, but I’ll dwell on this in greater detail
As mentioned off the top, Jelly Bean will start to ship out
on (and to) select devices as of the middle of July. Those in the Google
developer community can get their hands on dev kits right away, however, by
heading over to developers.google.com and downloading it.