The latest version of Google's Android mobile operating system was announced at its IO 2010 event in San Francisco. Codenamed Froyo (continuing Android's dessert-themed naming scheme), Android 2.2 adds new features and improves performance — as well as providing a platform for Adobe's latest Flash Player.
Android 2.2 is, at heart, a point release. If you're using a 2.0 or 2.1 Android device already, you won't see many obvious differences when you upgrade — especially if you're using a device that's skinned with one of the third-party Android user interfaces like HTC's Sense or Motorola's MotoBLUR. Most of the changes are under the skin, with new settings and options for the OS's core applications.
With the decline of Windows Mobile, it's not surprising that Google has used the latest Android to add additional enterprise features. Building on Android 2.0's Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) support, Android 2.2 now adds support for a second EAS end-point. This allows users to work with an individual account and a role or group account (or to use an Exchange account alongside another of the increasing number of mail services that use EAS). Android now auto-detects Exchange settings — for Exchange 2007 and above — and also allows you to use any arbitrary SSL certificate, finally letting Android work with self-certified Exchange installs without the complexity of certificate distribution and installation. Once connected, Android gets access to the Exchange GAL for address lookups, and can also handle Exchange calendars without requiring third-party application support.
Google has also added support for several more EAS-managed device policies, including remote wipe and password strength. However, it still doesn't support the ability to force hardware encryption policies, which will hinder Android adoption in organisations that deal with sensitive information. Exchange isn't Android's only management option. Android 2.2 includes a series of new management APIs, as well as new backup tools. These are intended for use by third-party device management tools, so we can expect to see Android rapidly becoming a first-class enterprise citizen.
Tweaks and browsers upgrades
Some of the new features appear trivial at first, but then turn out to be really rather useful — like the new home-screen shortcuts that give you quick access to the phone, the browser and application launcher from every one of the many home-screen panels. Others, like the ability to use the phone (depending on your operator and the phone hardware) as a 3G-connected Wi-Fi hotspot solve long-standing problems for mobile workers.
One of Android 2.2's more interesting features is the ability to turn your phone into a 3G-connected Wi-Fi hotspot for as many other devices as you like.
Android's WebKit-based browser gets some improvements, many of which are related to its support for Adobe's Flash Player. In the Android 2.1 browser you can turn plugins on or off; in the 2.2 browser that option moves to the Advanced Configuration section. You also get an 'On demand' option that lets you choose when you load a page that asks for a plugin. The privacy and security settings are also reorganised, so that the options to remember and clear passwords, or to turn location on and off, and to wipe location access for web sites are now side by side rather than in separate sections. That makes them a little easier to find, but otherwise it seems to be just a cosmetic change.
Although Google touted Android 2.2's ability for applications to install to SD cards (and run from them), you're unlikely to find any applications that actually have that option yet. That's because it needs to be enabled on an application-by-application basis by developers, and will have to wait for apps to be updated to the new Android 2.2 SDK.
Speeding it all up
Performance is increasingly important for mobile devices. The current generation of high-end hardware is running on 1GHz ARM processors, with at least 512MB of RAM. With specifications like that, users expect PC-like performance — even over 3G networks. As all Android applications are written in Java and run on the Dalvik virtual machine, there's a performance overhead that can compare poorly with competitors running native code. Android 2.2 aims to change that, with a new version of the Dalvik interpreter that adds Just-In-Time (JIT) compilation. The result is a considerable speed-up, with Google claiming that Android 2.2 is up to 7 times faster than Android 2.1. In practice, the speed boost varies: our tests show different tasks running between 2 and 5 times faster. One area where there's little difference between Android 2.1 and 2.2 is in its 3D graphics performance, which is dependent on GPU hardware.
We tested performance using a series of benchmarks comparing two very similar Android devices. Our main test device was Google's HTC-designed Nexus One. This was provided by Adobe and was running the latest builds of Android 2.2 and the Flash Player. We assessed its performance by comparing its benchmark results with the same tests run on a similar HTC device, the EVO 4G, running Android 2.1. Both are 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon devices, with 512MB of RAM. Benchmarking software was either web-based or downloaded from the Android Market.
Android 2.2's new Dalvik Java virtual machine makes a big difference. It's considerably faster, especially when handling complex mathematical operations (such as handling 2D graphics, calculating pi or running Linpack). You won't get the same speed-up if you're working directly with the phone hardware. When it comes to 3D graphics, both devices deliver similar performance as they have similar graphics accelerator hardware — as shown by the Neocore 3D benchmark. Similarly, as Nbench is a native-code version of the ByteMark CPU benchmark, it's not surprising that the two devices have very similar performance, as they use very similar hardware.
Android 2.2 is, at heart, a point upgrade. However, it's a very capable upgrade, and one that other companies would have treated as a jump from x.1 to x.5. New enterprise features make it a worthy successor to Windows Mobile as a business mobile OS, and improved performance gives it a significant boost — not just for the phone, but also for your existing application library. Some features will need to wait for developers to take advantage of the new APIs, but that's really just an added bonus.