Android 4.0: The stakes for Google are huge

Google's Android 4.0 effort will prove whether the search giant has design chops and can delight customers.

Google unveiled Android 4.0, also known as Ice Cream Sandwich, and to say the search giant has a lot riding on the mobile operating system would be an understatement.

Along with Samsung, Google execs walked the tech world through Android 4.0. Not surprisingly, there is the usual compliment of oohs, ahhs and instant observations that may look downright silly three months from now.

Some of those crazy statements are coming directly from Google. Execs called Android enchanting and easy with its "magazine style." Android 4.0 also makes you feel powerful and smart. I can't help but chuckle every time I hear that last one as if we're all going to mumble, "I have Ice Cream Sandwich hear me roar!"

Going through the various features is a worthwhile exercise since there are some nice features---Face Unlock---image editing, a new people app that looks a bit like Windows Phone's approach and other goodies. A few takes worth checking out include:

But let's fast forward to the strategy here. Google needs Android 4.0 to be enchanting and easy. Android is a geek OS and some of us just want our smartphone platforms to fade into the background and just work. Android to date feels a bit rough around the edges relative to Apple's iOS and Windows Phone. Here's why the stakes for Android 4.0 are so high:

  • Android doesn't update as much as it used to. When I first bought into Android part of the deal was that Google would iterate quickly. However, the development cycles have gotten longer. Google is largely on an annual cycle now like everyone else. With that cycle, you want more polish and expectations are higher.
  • Ice Cream Sandwich is the great unifier. Android 4.0 is supposed to be the OS that bridges the phone and tablet. Distribution ensures that Android 4.0 has a smartphone following. Android tablets have hit a brick wall called the iPad.
  • Apple has more distribution and Microsoft's Windows Phone will follow. Apple is on three carriers in the U.S. and has a ton of upside for iOS just by adding carriers. Microsoft will have distribution via Nokia. In other words, there will be more non-Android choices in the field.
  • Google has to prove it has design chops. Can a company dominated by engineers delight and integrate seamlessly with hardware? We'll see, but when Google CEO Larry Page uses words like "auto magical" I instantly turn skeptical. Samsung's Nexus is the flagship phone for the Google experience. If Android 4.0 doesn't deliver there it doesn't stand much of a chance. As carriers and other hardware makers get Android 4.0 they'll start tweaking.

Related:

Great Debate: Can Android continue its push toward mobile domination?

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