Will Android Ice Cream Sandwich conquer fragmentation?

Jason Ankeny

At the time Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) mounted its third I/O developer conference in May 2010, the digital services giant was activating 100,000 new Android devices every day. At last week's I/O 2011 event, Google announced Android activations now top 400,000 each day--the company has activated more than 100 million Android devices worldwide, with director of Android product management Hugo Barra stating that Android products are available from 36 OEM partners across 215 operator networks in 112 countries. But the most significant number to emerge from Google I/O 2011 is "One"--i.e., one version of Android that runs across all smartphones and tablets. At least that's the promise of Android's upcoming 'Ice Cream Sandwich' update, expected sometime during the fourth quarter of 2011--dubbed "our most ambitious release to date" by Android engineer Mike Claren, Ice Cream Sandwich is expected to deliver the tablet-optimized innovations introduced in Google's Android 3.0 Honeycomb update to all devices running the mobile OS, minimizing platform fragmentation in the process.

"We want one OS that runs everywhere," Claren said during his I/O 2011 keynote presentation, implicitly acknowledging the platform's fragmentation woes. "We're going to take all the good stuff in Honeycomb and make it available everywhere." (Among Honeycomb's breakthroughs: A holographic UI theme and a new interaction model building on signature features like multitasking, notifications and widgets.) Although additional details on Ice Cream Sandwich are presently scarce, Claren said Google will invest "heavily" in the platform's framework, "adding new APIs and intelligence" as well as development tools. Google also demoed two new features coming in Ice Cream Sandwich: A video tool that exaggerates and distorts live images (similar to funhouse mirrors) as well as what the company called "virtual camera operator," a videoconferencing feature that automatically focuses the device camera on the person speaking.

Google also stated Ice Cream Sandwich Source will be completely open-source. The company courted controversy earlier this year when it restricted access to Honeycomb's source code because the update was not designed for implementation across smartphones. "We did an internal trick to make the Honeycomb schedule--we took a shortcut, and didn't release it for smartphones," Google SVP of mobile Andy Rubin said during a media Q&A following I/O 2011's first-day keynote. "We didn't make it open-source because we didn't want people to wedge it onto phones."

But Q4 is still months away. In the meantime, there's Android 3.1, also announced last week. Bringing with it a series of enhancements that build on the Honeycomb foundation, Android 3.1 touts improved UI transitions throughout the system and across standard apps, with the Launcher animation optimized for faster, more seamless transitions to and from the Apps list. Also new: Adjustments in color, positioning and text, making UI elements easier to see and use, as well as consistent audible feedback and a new setting enabling users to customize the touch-hold interval. Android 3.1 also introduces connectivity for USB-connected accessories, allowing for support of myriad peripherals like keyboards, mice, game controllers and digital cameras, along with resizable homescreen widgets, an updated set of standard apps optimized for use on larger-screen devices, Gallery app support for Picture Transfer Protocol (allowing users to connect their cameras over USB and import photos with a single touch) and expanded enterprise support. (For a complete list of changes and upgrades, check out the Android Developers website.)

That's not all. With its Android Market storefront now exceeding 200,000 applications, Google introduced a series of app discovery enhancements giving consumers new options to more quickly and easily find what they're looking for. Chief among the changes (available now on the web and expanding soon to smartphones and tablets): Revised top app charts touting more current and relevant results specific to each user's country of origin. The revamped Android Market homepage also boasts top new free, top new paid and top grossing lists, as well as an Editor's Choice feature spotlighting staff recommendations across multiple categories. The new Top Developers designation even awards a special icon to developers creating the highest-quality, most popular apps--the first class of Top Developers honorees includes over 150 Android programmers.

Even as the driving force behind the Android ecosystem, there's only so much Google can do to curtail fragmentation and foster a more uniform developer and consumer experience, however. Those 36 OEM partners and 215 operator allies play a critical role as well. So Google will partner with Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), AT&T (NYSE:T), Sprint (NYSE:S), T-Mobile USA, HTC, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, LG, Vodafone and Motorola to adopt new guidelines that stipulate how quickly Android devices are updated after a new platform release and for how long carriers and manufacturers will continue updating them. To begin, new devices from participating partners will receive the latest Android platform upgrades for 18 months after the product is first released. Google didn't reveal too many specifics on the initiative, and while it's unclear just what impact all of these different plans and projects will have on Android fragmentation, what matters is that the company is finally making major moves to address the challenge--and as the saying goes, the first step toward recovery is admitting you have a problem. -Jason