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BW Businessworld

Inside The Sandwich

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Ah, so the Android team at Google has suddenly upped and figured out that technology is not just for nerds. People are supposed to be at the heart of the next version of its operating system, Android 4.0, code name Ice Cream Sandwich — to maintain their tradition of naming versions for tasty desserts.

Apple, of course, long ago mastered the art and science of designing products that centre on what people like and enjoy. Its iOS 5 is common to all their devices and full of ease-of-use features including natural gestures.

Microsoft also has re-thought Windows in its version 7.5 leading up to 8 and has come up with a fabulously simple and compelling user interface, easy, intuitive, and consistent across all devices running the OS. Sadly, it is yet to gain traction in the smartphone space, though it's early days.

With BBX from Research in Motion coming up, BlackBerry devices will also be wearing a single OS, it is hoped, with all core functions present on them this time. On the Playbook, the parent OS, QNX, was fast and powerful, making the device a cinch to use, if there had but been enough to do on it.

That leaves Android. Geeky, requiring much fiddling, configuring and learning; a device you have to tame — not exactly the phone to gift your mom. Savvy users of Android start by "rooting" their smartphones, by-passing what the phone maker put on it, and taking control of the device from the skeleton upward.

Android was meant to be "open" for both developers and users, allowing them to customise endlessly over the basic OS. But where it's going to get its next chunk of numbers is not from techies. So Android 4.0 has gone off in a different direction, trying to be easy, fun and yet remain powerful. "Enchant me; Simplify my Life; Make me Awesome," is the 4.0 slogan, and two of these three mandates indicate a shift in thinking considering that one could have said "Impress me, go ahead and complicate my life — I can handle it because I'm awesome" for earlier versions. This is the ninth version of Android, and while the other operating systems we use, including Windows, have different versions, Android has had them coming in rapid succession within a short time. Many Android versions co-exist on phones and not all devices get a new OS update, with the result that the highly fragmented universe of Android has confused many users and frustrated many developers.

Ice Cream Sandwich was conceptualised as a re-think, not just a set of incremental updates and tweaks. An OS that combines the current Gingerbread for smartphones and Honeycomb for tablets, 4.0 is the unifying all-devices platform. It should begin to dispel the fragmentation to give users across devices a consistent set of features and experiences, but a lot depends on when and how the update rolls out and whether a large majority of the existing smartphones get it at all.

For now, 4.0 has been showcased on the Samsung Nexus S, co-created by Google and Samsung. Ice Cream Sandwich has many new features. One that's creating a lot of buzz is face recognition, being used here to detect the owner's face and only then unlock the phone.  The Android team is  particularly delighted with their new typeface, Roboto, which is sharp and stylish. The interface overall has become easier and friendlier, with virtual lit-up buttons for basic navigation. Core tasks and frequent actions are within easy reach and you can even do some instant tasks from the locked screen.

Multitasking looks fantastic with recently used apps easily accessible in a vertical slider and the use of flick-away gestures to close. You can drop apps into folders — a feature familiar to iOS users. You can also set apps to launch when you say so rather than their eating up battery and connectivity time in the background. (I hope that means better battery life.) Resizable widgets let you customise what you choose to see up-front. NFC or near field communication is being used to the hilt. Get your phone close to someone else's to share all sorts of things including apps, YouTube videos and more. The camera software is another addition, all set to make use of the hardware it comes with.

There are lots of photo editing features (seeing how prolific sharing photo has become today) and a one-touch panorama capability. The 4.0 features go on and on, but for now, the OS is only out to developers to work with. It's when the apps come and it becomes available commercially that we'll see how much it helps Android forward its large 50 per cent market share of smartphone OS.

mala(at)pobox(dot)com, (at)malabhargava on Twitter

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 28-11-2011)