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Google outs Android 3.1 Ice Cream Sandwich

Google has finally spilled the beans on Android 3.1, nick-named 'Ice Cream Sandwich', in an official preview of the upcoming mobile OS at the search giant's I/O 2011 Developer Conference in San Francisco.

Confirming that the software would be "fully open-source", Google engineering director Chris Yerga unveiled the new version's logo and confirmed that the new OS would be rolled out in the last quarter of this year.

Speculation has been rife about Ice Cream Sandwich since Google's former CEO, Eric Schmidt, dropped some not-so-subtle hints about the new Android version at Mobile World Congress in February.

Back in April, news website ITProPortal spotted a device using the new OS in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, via Google's own website traffic-reporting tool, Analytics.

Now it's official - and as predicted, 3.1 one re-unites the two different flavours of Android that had diverged, after version 3.0 - 'Honeycomb' - became the first tailored specifically for larger-screened tablet devices, while 'Gingerbread' 2.3 became the state-of-the-art on smartphones such as the HTC Sensation and Samsung's Galaxy SII.

Another feature aimed at silencing critics who claim that the range of Android offerings available is too fragmented is a new set of guidelines for manufacturers, ensuring that all Android devices must be capable of being upgraded to the latest release for at least 18 months after their initial launch.

There was a hint of further convergence on the horizon, too, as delegates at I/O were told "We want one OS that runs everywhere" - prompting speculation of a merger, hinted at long ago by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, between Android and Google's desktop OS, Chrome.

So what's new in Ice Cream Sandwich? The new version sports the same 'holographic' user interface as the tablet-centric Honeycomb, but beneath the surface, smarter task-switching enables the OS to intelligently turn off resources to idle apps. A clearly relieved band of developers was also told that they would be able to create widgets that could be 'stretched' for use on smartphones or tablets "with just a few lines of XML".

Those same phones and tablets will now be able to act as USB 'hosts', enabling users to plug in an array of devices such as mice, keyboards or external storage into their devices - a feature that should help Android make further in-roads into the corner of the market currently occupied by netbooks.

Face detection is another new inclusion, aimed at making video calls clearer, apparently.

Delivering the keynote speech at I/O 2011, Google's product management director Hugo Barra revealed that more than 100 million Android devices had now been activated worldwide, with another 400,000 new activations each day, making Android the best-selling smartphone OS in the market.