There are few things in this world I despise more than software updates. Downloading hundreds of files, waiting for the progress bar to fill, restarting the device - it's all a thankless chore. Usually.
But Google's Android 4.0 operating system, better known by its tasty nickname "Ice Cream Sandwich", or ICS, is far from a mere mobile OS update. Ice Cream Sandwich is a complete OS overhaul that includes tweaks ranging from the geekily esoteric (widget resizing!) to the most surface-level of interface improvements (think "shinier", care of faux-polished surfacing effects). It's also destined for both Android smartphones and tablets, unifying Google's mobile OS platforms for the first time.
Google invited me to its Mountain View campus for hands-on time with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the flagship device on which Ice Cream Sandwich will launch sometime in November. Android Vice President of Engineering, Hiroshi Lockheimer, gave me a deep-dive tour of the new software, and, by the time I left, I was stoked to upgrade to one of the most anticipated Android releases to date.
A Revamped User Interface
"Frankly, there's something I've heard people say about Android for a while," Lockheimer tells me inside Google HQ on Wednesday. "It's a cool OS, but it's a bit rough around the edges."
It's true. I've been an Android user since I switched from a BlackBerry years ago, and I've never used an iPhone as my primary mobile device. But I hear the exact same thing from every iOS user who's ever taken Android for a spin: "It doesn't feel finished."
Relative to competing mobile OSes, Android's release cycle runs at a breakneck pace, with major software version releases debuting about every six months. Lockheimer began working on Android over five years ago (before Android was really "Android"), and he's survived nine different version launches in about four years. In that same four-year period, Apple iterated its iOS just four times.
The Android team's mandate to continuously iterate is admirable, but according to Lockheimer, it accounts for some of Android's so-called roughness.
"It's just a mindset thing," Lockheimer says. "Moving that fast, you don't get to spend as much time as others do ironing out the fine points."
Nonetheless, Ice Cream Sandwich is the closest to a "finished" version of Android I've ever seen. The team spent an incredible amount of time on refining the little things, from changing details as minor as the opacity of the notifications background (it's now translucent, so you can see the app tray beneath it), to as major as redesigning the phone's lock screen to look more like that of Honeycomb (aka Android 3.0, Google's current tablet OS). It's this collection of subtle touches and flourishes that comprise an enormous change in overall OS feel — a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.
Even Android's system-wide typeface was reimagined. "Roboto," Android's new official font, is spread across all parts of the OS containing text. Android user experience chief Matias Duarte says the font serves a dual purpose — "modern, yet approachable" with mechanical forms underscored by a "cheerful demeanour". I think it's pleasant to look at, even if it does appear to be a variant of Helvetica.
In order to appreciate the biggest interface changes in Ice Cream Sandwich, you must first consider that it's essentially a union of Android's phone and tablet interfaces, two drastically different UI designs intended for entirely different form factors. The new OS makes obsolete all the physical buttons currently gracing Android smartphones, replacing them with virtual keys (just like those first introduced in Honeycomb in February). Similarly, home screen widgets are now moveable and resizable, and organised under a new tab in the app menu.
In a strange amalgamate of added security and high-tech playfulness, the new "Face Unlock" uses the front-facing camera to scan and verify your face before granting access to your phone. The feature uses advanced facial recognition technology developed by Pittsburgh Pattern Recognition, a company Google acquired earlier this year.
While Face Unlock looks pretty darn sweet, reliable functionality is (currently) hit or miss. It worked about three out of the five times I tried it, and it quite publicy failed to recognise a Google employee during the Ice Cream Sandwich launch demo in front of international press. Regardless, you can still use a backup PIN or pattern entry code to unlock devices, so you and your unrecognizable mug won't be left out in the cold.
What's more exciting than a phone that knows your face? A phone that plays well with others. Using Near Field Communications (NFC) technology, you'll be able to share content between Ice Cream Sandwich devices with "Android Beam". By tapping the back of your phone to the back of a compatible handset, you can swap web pages, apps and whatever else Google or software developers enable for transfer in the future.
Google has trumpeted the benefits of NFC ever since launching the Nexus S smartphone last year, asserting that the technology will soon change the way we use our phones in the course of everyday life. For example, Google Wallet — a major Google e-commerce initiative supported by CitiBank Mastercard, with more credit companies on the way — allows users to pay for purchases at retail stores with simple waves of their smartphones (assuming, of course, the retailers have the proper NFC reader technology installed).
I was bummed that Lockheimer wasn't able to show me Android Beam in action when I visited — his Galaxy Nexus was running a different build of Ice Cream Sandwich than the demo unit I held. Regardless, sharing web pages between phones isn't the Android Beam feature that really excites me. We should all be more interested in the NFC innovations that haven't yet been announced.
Imagine being able to "encircle" one another using our Google+ accounts with a mere tapping of phones. Or perhaps exchange contact info with a quick Nexus bump. Who knows, maybe in the future a quick Android Beam tap will be good enough for a marriage licence in Las Vegas. The possibilities are as frightening as they are endless.
A Wealth of New ‘Inspired' Features
For all the new features Ice Cream Sandwich contains — and there are too many to include in total here — some seemed a bit, well, familiar to me. Like UI deja vu.
For example, take "People", the new, renamed and redesigned contacts application. Instead of scrolling down a bland list of named entries - a la Gingerbread and its OS predecessors — People spawns what Duarte calls a "magazine-style" thumbnail-view approach to browsing your contacts, replacing text entries with the faces of your friends and acquaintances. The feature is immediately evocative of one of the best parts of Microsoft's Metro UI for Windows Phones.
You're also able to drag and drop apps on top of one another, creating clusters of apps organised into individual folders. iOS, anyone? I think so.
And yes, thank god, you'll finally be able to take Android screenshots by pushing the power and volume buttons simultaneously. It may not be a feature everyone needs, but if you spend a good portion of your work life assembling online posts about Android, the screenshot feature is a game changer.
But of all of these familiar features, one of my favourites is the inclusion of a "swiping" manoeuvre that lets you navigate back and forth between separate pages of different app icons. It's been available in Honeycomb and iOS, and now it comes to Android phones as well. Cooler still, you're able to quickly eliminate individual elements from your notifications menu, instead of being required to clear them all at once. Lockheimer's team likes to call it the "line-item veto".
I mentioned to Lockheimer how familiar some of the new Android features feel. And it's also worth noting that both Lockheimer and user experience head Matias Duarte previously worked on software at Palm, which developed the gesture-based, swipe-friendly webOS. So how much of their work — and work done by other OS developers — "inspired" the new Android, so to speak?
"People expect gestures today," Lockheimer told me, adding that public expectation is influenced by all of today's mobile platforms, not just Android. Actions such as the "long press" — which entails holding your finger on an app or widget longer than usual in order to spawn an options menu — remains a part of Android, but new gesture-based movements allow users to "surface a lot more of the actions they weren't already aware of," Lockheimer says. In essence, Android's existing accessibility options, however quirky, are still available for Android nerds and other power users, but now it will be easier for novices to navigate the system as well.
In a brilliant addition for those who have difficulty staying on top of monthly data usage, Ice Cream Sandwich comes with an app that lets you monitor data consumption on a granular level. You can see exactly which apps are eating the most bandwidth, and even investigate usage on a day-by-day basis — helpful if you want to know just how much YouTube-ing you did last Thursday, and how much of your data budget it cost you.
"This sort of data translates to real money," Lockheimer says.
Personally, I'm not quite that scrutinous — I'm on an unlimited data plan — but I can see stingy (or analytics-driven) nerds loving this feature.
My discussion with Lockheimer slowly segues to Ice Cream Sandwich's launch vehicle, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, and its camera features. In terms of raw specs, the camera is no beast; at 5 megapixels, it's about par for the smartphone course. But for this camera, Lockheimer says, pixels aren't the point.
"Rather than getting into the megapixel wars, we wanted to give people what they want," Lockheimer tells me as he turns on the camera with a left-flick of his thumb on the lock screen (another new shortcut). "They want to take a picture now."
He then fires off six shots in rapid succession, with no more than a few tenths of a second between each exposure. I've never seen a smartphone camera take pictures this fast. And I've been around the block.
It turns out that as you finish taking one photo, the phone begins to save the file in the background while immediately letting you take the next shot. It's slick as hell, and the camera's image quality doesn't suffer terribly despite its average resolution.
As our meeting winds down, Lockheimer looks visibly tired. He has been questioned all day by tech journalists itching to get a first look at the new OS, and I'm sure he's hit the same talk points a hundred times over. So I try to throw him a curveball: "Of everything you've shown me today," I ask him, "what are you the most proud of?"
He pauses for a beat, nodding, thinking. "It's really the entire package we're delivering," he tells me. It's not a spicy answer, but I can understand Lockheimer's reluctance to "name a favourite child" given all he's endured to see Ice Cream Sandwich reach fruition: hours and hours of coding, tweaking, testing and troubleshooting, as well as four months of eating his own dogfood on test devices prior to the OS's public debut in Hong Kong this week.
So, no, it's not about individual features. It's the whole OS itself.
As November's public release looms closer, the true litmus test for Ice Cream Sandwich is still to come. Will the masses have a hankering for sweets, or will they reach for an apple?
I don't pretend to know the answer, but I'll say this: Ice Cream Sandwich is smooth, polished and more elegant than any Android OS before it.
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