Google has officially unveiled its latest mobile operating system, the tablet-themed Android 3.0 'Honeycomb' at a US press event yesterday evening - and while it's unlikely to wow iPad fans, it's certainly streets away from older releases.
Presented in part by Google's director of products for mobile, Hugo Barra, the event showed off the as-yet unreleased software running on Motorola's likewise unavailable Xoom tablet and, while there were a few embarrassing glitches along the way, the overall impression was one of a slick interface offering a smooth user experience.
Although earlier versions of Android, originally designed for smartphones, have featured 'widgets' - interactive mini-apps - on the desktop, Honeycomb takes that concept and runs with it. Early on in the demonstration, Barra showed off various widgets - including 3D lists, which can be scrolled independently and simultaneously thanks to the in-built multi-touch support - along with a new notifications system that provides pop-up context-sensitive data in the system tray.
One of the biggest changes to the user interface is the use of 'application fragments' - multiple viewing panes that each take up a fraction of the display, which Barra demonstrated in the new tablet-centric version of Gmail. When a message is selected, the screen 'slides' to show a new 'fragment' - and when the message is dismissed, it slides back to the original view.
The key point to this approach, claimed Barra, is to allow developers to create applications that aren't restricted to a set screen size. If a device's display is higher resolution than expected, it will simply allow more fragments to be displayed - or each fragment will become bigger to compensate.
Barra was most keen to show off the 3D chops of the new OS, demonstrating impressive slideshow-style music, video, and photo applications build in Honeycomb's new 'Renderscript' language. Perhaps most impressive of all was a YouTube video-wall app, which Barra claimed was entirely Renderscript driven, followed by a new Google Maps application.
Like Apple's iPhone 4, Honeycomb includes in-built support for video calls on devices that include an onboard camera. Although Barra's initial attempts to demonstrate the functionality by calling self-labelled 'Ladykiller' Cee Lo Green were thwarted - first by Barra forgetting to sign in to Google Talk, and then by Green failing to be online at the appointed time - the video chat app appeared to work fine.
Video calling is joined by a much-improved user interface for still and video shooting, which does away with the somewhat clunky interface from older Android versions in favour of a much slicker-looking system - about time, given how poor the camera interface is on Android smartphones.
The general feel from the event is one of hopeful optimism: the improved support for dual-core processors, impressive 3D effects in the user interface, and the number of times Barra claimed his team had put 'a great deal of time and/or effort' into something indicates that future Android tablets are going to be significantly more impressive than the disappointing models we've seen in the past.
Whether the slightly dated-looking aesthetics of the retro-modern interface will convince iPad owners to turn to the Google side, however, remains to be seen. Android 3.0 'Honeycomb', and the all-important tablets that run it, is expected to launch in April this year.
For those with an hour to spare, the full video of the event is embedded below.