Google I/O 2010: Day of the Droids

Attendees of the Google I/O conference expected to hear great things about Android, and on Thursday they were not disappointed.
Written by Ed Burnette, Contributor

At day 2 of its I/O developer conference, Google announced a new version of Android (2.2 "FroYo") and an Android-powered living room solution called Google TV. First let's take a look at FroYo.

Android 2.2 (development kit out now, downloads and over the air updates coming "soon") should have really been called version 3 because of all the neat features it contains. There's something here for users and developers alike.

Android 2.2 user features

  • Flash 10.1, which opens up a whole world of web-based games and rich media not visible on other mobile platforms like iPhone.
  • Startling increases in performance, both of native Android applications and web applications. Google claims that Android 2.2 has the fastest mobile web browser, and backed up the claim with side-by-side comparisons of the previous version of Android and the Apple iPad.
  • Seamless installation of apps on SD cards. The original G1 had about 70MB of space available for all apps. With a big SD card you can have 16GB or 32GB. Actually the space is unlimited since SD cards are removable.
  • Enterprise features including pin numbers and remote wipe so your IT group will finally let you connect to your mail, calendar, and global address book on your Android phone.
  • Tethering and mobile hotspot. Now WiFi devices (netbooks, iPads, game systems) in the vicinity of your phone can connect to the Internet using your phone's data plan.
  • Easier ways to keep your Android apps up to date. Like on the iPhone, you can press a button to take all updates at once. Or, you can tell particular apps that you trust to keep themselves updated without bothering you.

Some of these are catch-up features that other phones like the iPhone have had for a while, like Exchange pin numbers and remote wipe. But others leapfrog anything else currently available. Ain't competition grand?

Android 2.2 developer features

I could go on and on about the new features for developers but here are the highlights:

  • Cloud Push API. Instead of polling for events in the background, Android apps can now register receivers for remote messages that come from the cloud. Other software, which might be running on other Android machines or might be on desktops or servers, send messages to the cloud for them to be delivered to your phone. For example, if you're watching a video on your laptop and have the right software, you can press a button to send the video to your Android device where it will instantly start playing there too. Map coordinates, phone numbers, text messages, ... the possibilities are endless.
  • Application Data Backup API. Android already remembers what apps you have bought and installed on your device through your Google cloud account. Now it can remember the data that goes along with those apps too. For example if you upgrade your phone your todo list or favorite recipies or browser bookmarks or exercise history can be migrated easily.
  • Flash AIR support. Now developers can take stand-alone AIR programs and install and run them on Android. I should mention this is just a pre-release at this point, but when it's finally production, AIR programs should look and act just like native Android apps to the user.
  • Remember that SD card install thing I mentioned earlier? This means that developers have the freedom to release apps with lots of audio and graphics that previously were not practical on Andrdoid.

Google TV

Do you recall the Web TV effort from about 10 years ago? It was supposed to let your TV act as a gateway to the Internet. Of course, 10 years ago we were talking dial-up speeds. No YouTube. No HTML5. No Flickr, or FaceBook or Twitter, or Chatroulette. And Web TV was completely closed. There was no ecosystem, and no open source. It's amazing how much has changed since then, and Google is going to try again.

Google TV is an Android-based platform for merging web and TV. You take your regular HDTV with HDMI in, and add an inexpensive (~$200-$400) dedicated solid state Atom-based computer, plus a remote control that has a keyboard. Or you get a new TV that has the computer part built-in. You use the wireless broadband connection that you probably already have set up in your house. Then you turn this thing on and it looks like, well, regular TV. Ok, now what?

Press a button and a search bar appears. Type in the name of a show, and see options for where it is playing now or in the future on the TV, plus links to web-based resources for the show. For example, type in "House" and you can see Fox is currently running a new episode, there's a re-run at 10pm you can record if you have a DVR, and a bunch of old episodes are available on Hulu and on Amazon.com for free or for purchase. And you might find that somebody did a spoof episode on YouTube, and there's a fan club meeting around the corner, and, ... you get the idea.

Don't feel like a TV show? No problem, you can go to a web site to check up on news or sports, check your email, send a twitter update, and so forth. Every web site, including Flash based ones or sites with lots of Ajax and HTML5 effects, are available on the big screen. Google TV uses the full Chrome browser, so pretty much anything Chrome can do, Google TV can do.

And because it's based on Android, you can browse the Android market and download and play your favorite games and other apps directly from your TV as well. Your TV probably doesn't have a touch screen, but you can use the remote control that comes with the box to interact with the apps. Or you can run a remote control program on your Android phone and use that as a control for your big screen. Multiple phones can act as a remote for a single Google TV box. And did I mention that because of the Atom processor and graphics chip, Android apps are going to run faster on your TV than they do on any current ARM-based portable device?

Google has lined up support from Sony, Logitech, and Intel for the Google TV initiative. That's a start, but not nearly enough for this thing to take off. There is a lot of skepticism that anyone can pull this off, and many will wait and see before committing. It may take a while (read: years), but this one has a lot of potential. After all there are over 4 billion TV watchers out there - an audience that dwarfs even the mobile phone market. The first hardware will be on sale in time for this year's holiday season.

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