Google Announces Plans to Advance, Consolidate Android Development

At its annual Google I/O conference on Tuesday, Google announced plans for future versions of the Android mobile OS that will consolidate its currently separate smartphone and tablet systems. The next version of Android OS—called "Ice Cream Sandwich" by the company—will provide a superset of the functionality found in today's tablet-based "Honeycomb" system. But it will work on both smartphones and tablets, Google says.

Android is already the world's best-selling smartphone platform, and Google provided some fascinating numbers to bolster that claim. The company is now activating more than 400,000 Android-based devices every single day, and Android users have installed more than 4.5 billion apps so far. Naturally, these numbers are both accelerating: At last year's show, the activation number was "just" 100,000 per day. And although it took Google two years to reach the first billion app installs, the last billion took just 60 days. This is a platform that is exploding in a good way and leaving the competition in the dust.

Alas, not all is well in Android-land, however. Because of the wide range of device types and Google's lack of control over the Android device hardware landscape, many users are stuck with older versions of the Android OS and unable to obtain features found in more recent releases. Too, Google's previous (and, as it turns out, temporary) decision to fork Android OS development into separate tablet and smartphone projects has also caused a rift.

So this week, Google announced plans to fix both problems.

First, Google has formed a task force aimed at "encouraging" (but not requiring) Android hardware makers to commit to updating their devices to new Android OS versions over an 18-month period, providing customers with a clear upgrade pledge and path. Numerous partners—including AT&T, HTC, LG, Motorola, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Vodafone—have all agreed to do so.

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Second, Google is advancing the Android OS with new versions, one of which will consolidate the now-separate tablet and smartphone versions. First up is Android OS 3.1, an update to the tablet-based Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) that will provide a number of additional features around hardware accessory compatibility, home screen customization, media transfer, and real-time communications.

More exciting perhaps are plans for Ice Cream Sandwich, which will bring many Honeycomb features to Android smartphones for the first time and, hopefully, mitigate another big area of Android fragmentation. This release—which could be called Android OS 4, though Google has not confirmed that—will appear in September or October 2011, the company says, and will include such advances as a state-of-the-art "holographic" UI, richer and more customizable widgets, and more.

"We want one OS that runs everywhere," Google Principal Software Engineer Mike Claron said, noting that Ice Cream Sandwich would target a variety of devices—not just phones and tablets but also convertible laptops, portable game machines, and more. (The "and more" bit seems to suggest a future version of Google TV, but perhaps we'll learn more about this at Wednesday's Google I/O keynote.)
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