Perspective - During last week’s Google I/O conference, Google finally revealed more Android features, showcasing code examples in an effort to re-ignite interest in the platform. If the reactions coming from developers and handset makers are any indication, Android has all the opportunities to evolve into the platform of choice for any handset maker looking to come up with an iPhone-killer.
Much has been said and written about Google’s push into a mobile space. Instead of the gPhone, which was the name for the speculated Google-branded handset, the search giant introduced the Android software platform last year. Basically a Linux-based open-source OS for mobile devices, Android provides handset makers with tools to create what could be described as an iPhone-like experience. To make sure that Android gets off the ground, Google has formed the Open Handset Alliance - an organization that currently counts more than 30 companies tied to the mobile phone segment.
Although the Android SDK has been freely available for months, Google chose the Google I/O conference in San Francisco to show off the platform’s capabilities. There is a range of innovative features, flexible code, great integration with Google’s cloud services and smooth visuals - all of which seem to have re-ignited developer and media interest in Android.
Fancy visuals and a great user interface
The code examples shown at the conference surprised all who questioned Android’s ability to smoothly deliver fancy graphics. Android’s GUI clearly has been polished. Smooth animations and the quality of graphics are reminiscent of what Apple has achieved with the iPhone. It’s also a testament to the iPhone’s UI design, as Android sports an almost identical home screen with application icons and favorites at the bottom. Similar to the iPhone, you can also flip between different home screens.
Unlike the iPhone, however, the background image can be wider than the home screen. The image scrolls smoothly when you switch between home screens. By pulling your finger down over menu bar at the top of the screen, you can access the notification options, which include missed calls, new messages, appointments, etc.
A pattern-based unlocking feature allows users to record a specific pattern that has to be drawn on the handset touch screen to unlock the device. You can add shortcuts to the home screen, which can include URLs, contacts and music playlists. Besides shortcuts, widgets can be placed on the home screen : For example, users can put or drag a clock or search box widget on the home screen. You can watch Google VP Vic Gondotra demo UI features in this YouTube video.
Android’s browser is based on the same WebKit open source rendering engine as Apple’s Safari browser. There is no support for a two-finger gesture to zoom into a web page, but Google has included a simple magnifying glass feature to enlarge portions of a site. According to Gondotra, every site designed for WebKit and optimized for the iPhone should render without problems on Android devices.
Android’s Maps application is similar to the Maps application on the iPhone. But Google has taken it a step further with the inclusion of "Street View" and an interesting touch to it : If a handset has a compass built in (a sensor like iPhone’s accelerometer, which detects the movement along all three axis), you can simply move your phone around to rotate the Street View. Watch the Maps app with compass feature in this video.
We have heard about the iPhone App Store, essentially an "iTunes for third-party applications" to find, purchase, download, install and update third-party software. Google did not demonstrate such a feature, but Android project lead Andy Rubin hinted that a centralized store for delivering Android applications is in the works. Like Apple, Google may provide separate customization options for businesses and consumers.
Integration with Google cloud services
Google has gone to great lengths to open its datastore and cloud services to the Android platform since the whole purpose of the platform is to get users to use Google services on their mobile phones.
The company recently opened limited access to Google Apps Engine, an online services suite that includes, for example, Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs and Google Sites. The Apps Engine is an application environment that provides developers with a way to run web applications on Google’s vast infrastructure, connecting their applications to Google’s cloud services and datastore, such as maps, webmail etc. By opening services to the developers, the search giant provides developers with a unique opportunity to create Android applications that can integrate with Google services. Android Maps is an example.
Customization and openness
Since Android is based on open source code and comes with an Apache license, handset makers can practically tinker with the operating system code in any way they like. They have freedom to redesign the UI, add or remove features and change the OS code base. "They can add to it. They can remove from it. They make it their own," Rubin said. "They can rip out all the Google stuff and put in all Yahoo ! stuff," he said. Developers can even remove Android APIs in order to optimize the operating system code for a particular handset. Since playing with OS APIs could be problematic, Google will provide developers with a script to test the basic functionality of the operating system.
Android is currently the only mobile operating system with that much flexibility. Although the iPhone SDK has opened the iPhone to developers, it is still a controlled environment. Conceivably, Android’s openness could create an advantage for the platform over anything that is out there today.
At this time, we perceive the Android GUI as the iPhone GUI on steroids. It sports an almost identical UI design with a shiny graphics and smooth animations as well as the familiar swipe and tap gestures. It tops the iPhone in terms of menu bar features, a nice background image functionality, an innovative notifications feature, richer shortcuts options and the ability to add widgets to the home screen.
Since it uses the same WebKit rendering engine, Android appears to offer a decent web browsing experience, perhaps not on par with the iPhone at this time, but close. Street View in its Maps applications is stunning. Count in a possible application store and you have a fair amount of user-centric benefits, showing that the platform has the potential to challenge the best on the market today.
We have no doubt that Google will have a hard time positioning Android in an already crowded market that is covered with Windows Mobile, Symbian, PalmOS, Linux and now iPhone cellphones. But at least from what we have seen so far, it has the advantage of being a fresh and optimized development platform created from scratch exclusively with mobile devices in mind. It offers a great integration with Google services, has the most flexible OS code base in a mobile device and a substantial backing.
Android’s openness provides developers and handset makers with a unique opportunity to re-define and create user experience from scratch. We will have to wait until the second half of 2008 to see how the platform works in a real life scenario : Several handset makers are planning to launch Android devices later this year. Judging by the enthusiasm coming from the media, consumers and handset makers, Android is off to a great start.