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Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) – What Developers Can Expect

by Simon Guest on Feb 18, 2011 |

On Jan 26th, Google released a developer preview of the much talked about Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) operating system.  Since then, developers have been able to preview the new release through the AVD (Android Virtual Device) Manager, which is shipped as part of the SDK.

What makes the Honeycomb release different from previous Android versions such as Froyo and Eclair is that it has been designed from the ground up with larger displays in mind, especially the tablet form factor.  To support these larger displays, the new operating system features a new UI theme called “Holographic”, which adds a new skin to the operating system, while at the same time keeping many of the underlying features that existing Android users will be familiar with.

 This week, on Feb 2nd, Google went a step further holding an event at their Mountain View headquarters to show off the features of the operating system, including a demo on Motorola’s new tablet, the Xoom.  The video from the event has been uploaded to YouTube, but to save you the time of watching it from end to end, we’ve summarized the important features and announcements that you might be interested in.

Introducing the new UI features of Android 3.0

Andy Rubin kicked off the event, explaining how Google are excited to be “shepherding” the operating system through the open source process, and was closely followed by Hugo Barra, Android’s head of mobile products.  Hugo started by showing some of the new UI features on the device, which centered around a new set of widgets and a new, non-intrusive, notification system, both design with the tablet form factor in mind. 

Although the new UI theme looks different from version 2.x releases of Android, Hugo was keen to demonstrate to the audience that existing applications written for previous versions of Android – even graphic intensive applications such as Fruit Ninja – will also work well on Honeycomb.

For developers who have written applications for both iPhone and iPad, this backward compatibility will feel familiar.  What might also be familiar is a set of templates that leverages some of the new UI principles in the new operating system.  Hugo referred to these as “fragments” during his talk, and demonstrated how fragments could provide transitions between parts of applications, as well as explaining how different fragments could be used to skin the same application differently for targets.  For example, how an application could have a set of fragments for handsets, tablets in portrait mode, and tablets in landscape mode.

Performance of Android 3.0

Next up was the topic of performance.  The new Android 3.0 release includes a new 3D engine and animation framework called Renderscript.  The audience was treated to several “eye candy” examples of how Renderscript could be used to display a 3D video wall of YouTube videos, books, or albums. 

Developers who have lived through releases of other graphics frameworks such as Microsoft’s Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), Silverlight, or Adobe Air will likely appreciate how close these low powered devices are coming to offering very similar graphics capabilities to their higher powered relatives.

Additional media capabilities of the device were also demonstrated, including a couple of multicore games from War Drum Studios, migrated from the PS3 platform to Android, and an Android-specific version of CNN’s news reader which included a broadsheet page view and live streaming of CNN video.

Out of all the media demonstrations however, the one that likely caught the crowd’s eye the most was support for live video chat.  The Motorola Xoom comes equipped with rear and front facing cameras, making it an ideal platform for full screen video conferences.  The live demo, presumably held over a wireless connection instead of 3G, appeared smooth.  This may also have been aided by image stabilization technology that Google has added to the video application.  Not only does this help keep the picture steady, but it also saves bandwidth by negating the need to send side-shifted frames across the wire.

Android Market

The final part of the keynote saw Chris Yerga, a new recruit to Google, talk about the new improvements to the Android Market.  The majority of Chris’s talk focused around a new announcement of the release of the Android Market Web Store

Up until now, Android users have only been able to obtain applications from within the device itself.  With the new web version of the store however, users can now browse the store, discover the applications they are interested in, filter based on type and user reviews, and when they are ready purchase the application through Google Checkout - have it directly sent to one of their registered devices. 

For the developer creating applications for the Android platform, the store also allows longer descriptions, large sized icons, high resolution banners, and links to videos on YouTube directly from the page. 

Finally, Chris talked about some of the new support for financial transactions in the Android market, which included the ability for developers to enter explicit prices for different currencies, as well as support for in-application (in-app) purchases.  Through an SDK, in-app purchases will enable developer to charge end users for content or other items directly within their application.  To demonstrate this, Bart Decrem, GM from Disney Mobile demonstrated three new applications for Android, including the popular Tap Tap Revenge, which supports in-app purchases using this new SDK. 

What Google Didn’t Show

While it was clear that the demonstrations of the new operating system were focused towards consumers, developers may also be interested in Android 3.0’s support for a pluggable DRM framework, and administrative policies such as encrypted storage and password expiration.  As Tim Cook mentioned in Apple’s earnings call last week, many enterprises are actively evaluating and deploying tablet devices.  Although not shown during this event, many of these features will be attractive to such organizations, especially those requiring the manageability of devices that are deployed to users.

Getting Deep on Honeycomb Today

In our own tests at InfoQ, we found that while the emulator ran on hardware used for developing for current versions of Android, the slow performance of the virtual machine clearly shows that this is a preview build.  As such, developers will likely find that this build is useful for exploring what new features are included, but many will probably want to wait until the next release before seriously considering writing applications for the platform.

With the Motorola Xoom slated for the end of February, developers are going to have to wait a little longer before they’ll get to experience Honeycomb on a fully supported device.  Fear not however, as owners of Barnes and Noble’s Nook Color devices – who don’t mind rooting the device and wiping everything from it – are able to try Honeycomb today courtesy of a group of open source developers who have ported it to the device, complete with download image and instructions

Your mileage may vary, but this could also be a great opportunity to get a first look at the new Android tablet operating system before it’s available in stores!

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