The new Motorola Xoom tablet will likely be remembered in computer history, not for its hardware or iPad-like pricing, but because it was the first tablet to use the “Honeycomb” operating system – Android 3.0. Honeycomb was developed by Google from the ground up as a tablet OS, and it shows.
The State of Android Tablets
While there has been a deluge of Android tablets on the market in the last few months, most of them have been Chinese designed and manufactured units built to a much cheaper price point than the Apple iPad. There is a good reason for this, as current versions of Android – through 2.2 (Froyo) – were really designed for Android phones.
Some of those units have been pretty powerful and very capable – particularly those based on the multi-core Freescale IMX Cortex chipset, the 1GHz ZT-180, and the Telechips dual core tablets running Android 2.1/2.2. A few expensive custom designs, like the Samsung Galaxy 5 tablet, were even uniquely innovative. However, no matter how good the implementation or how complete the access to Android Market, the current tablets still feel more like smartphones with a big screen than a true tablet PC.
Apple has told us all along that iOS, the Apple iPhone/iPad operating system, was designed first for tablets, even though it initially launched for the iPhone. That sounds good, but the reality is something else. It does not really explain why the iPad is so great for surfing and basic email, but pretty lame when used for traditional business applications and other computer tasks that work much better on cheaper notebook PCs. If this was Apple’s vision for a tablet OS then it is certainly cute and flashy, but very limited in actual computing capabilities.
Apple iPad users love the light weight, intuitive interface.and easy transport of the iPad, but if you have watched business users struggle to actually use an iPad for traditional computer applications, you will understand how limited the current iPad tablet technology actually is.
Android 3.0 shines on the TabletHoneycomb finally does all the things Google has promised for Android, and you can finally see what a real tablet OS looks like. You will also understand why Google has not officially licensed Android for a tablet PC until Android 3.0.
Google has been 12-24 months behind Apple in the mobile market, but they decided they could not win by merely copying Apple. The decision was made at Google that the only way to win this war was to out-execute Apple. That is why we have seen a new Android version every 5 months or so, instead of the annual refresh that is core to Apple’s strategy. With Android 3.0 (Honeycomb), you finally see what this decision actually means in a real product.
Every Android phone we have seen up to the current version 2.2 uses 4 buttons. They may be real buttons, or screen buttons, and the order and location may differ by model, but you will find buttons for Home, Menu, Back and Search. It works well for smartphones, with limited screen real estate, but it is not really efficient for a large tablet screen.
Android 3.0 has just Back, Home and Tasks button (icons) – always located at the lower left. The rest of the User Interface is very much like a current desktop computer UI. What was a pull down shade at the top of the smartphone screen is now a notification bar in the lower right of the screen – just like what we are used to with the Windows system tray – just not as cluttered and confusing. There is also clock, Wi-Fi and battery status indicators in the tray.
The point is that Honeycomb does not look like Apple iOS or any previous version of Android. Android 3.0 will feel familiar to any current desktop or laptop computer user, but it still feels fresh and new.
Unlike Apple, Android has had multitasking capabilities and very efficient memory management from the start. As more applications are running in Android memory, Android manages running applications to prevent memory overflow and performance degradation.
What Android has not had until now is a convenient way to switch between running tasks. Honeycomb builds on the Apple iOS “Home” button (which can serve as a task switcher) and even the Windows Phone 7 “Back” button, in a powerful but very simple way. The third fixed “button” on the lower left brings up a list of up to five of your previously run apps. Each item has a label telling you what it is as well as a visual preview of the app. This is limited to 5 apps, but you can scroll to reveal more.
There’s more than one way to switch between running tasks, as there is also the new Notification Area on the lower right of the screen. Running apps popup to the left of the clock and can be addressed just by clicking the icon. Sound familiar? Also If you tap on the signal/battery strength icon you get a stacked list of all the notifications, which can be launched or managed by choosing apps in the stack.
Widgets and Apps Launcher
Google has always been sold on the use of Widgets as an OS feature, and that continues with Android 3.0. There is now an email widget that is like a mini Inbox, a mini stack of video views for the YouTube widget, and even a mini book list for the eBooks widget. Tap anything that interests you in the mini-stack and it launches that item and the application. Adding widgets is easy. Just tap the + button on the upper right of the screen and you can add or drag widgets (and app shortcuts) between any of the multiple home screens seen in the mini views.
If you still can’t get to where you want to go, there is also the familiar Android Apps Launcher available by clicking the upper right of the screen. You get the list of Apps arranged in a familiar way.
Android Grows Up
We have barely scratched the surface of all the new innovations in Android 3.0. The best way to describe the new OS is it’s like Android grew up. The best way to fully appreciate the new OS is to go to a retailer and actually use a Motorola Xoom running Honeycomb. You will see what can really be done with a Tablet PC. Honeycomb is NOT an knockoff of Apple iOS, it is a better tablet OS in almost every way.
It’s fair to ask “SO WHAT?” at this point. Even if Honeycomb is so great, it is only available on an $800 Motorola tablet that is just as costly as the Apple iPad. Even the coming Wi-Fi only Xoom will sell for $600. While that is true today there is also the fact that Android is an Open OS, unlike Apple iOS or Windows 7. That means it will only be a short time until Android 3.0 starts appearing on very reasonably priced tablets from other manufacturers. It will be interesting to see where those clone makers take this new and very powerful OS.Perhaps even more significant, Google has plans to take Android to the desktop PC eventually, and they have said the OS will be free. If you want to get a flavor of what Android on the desktop or notebook may look like take a close look at Honeycomb and the directions it is taking. Is it any wonder Microsoft and Apple are looking over their shoulder to see where and how fast Google is moving?
iPad Refresh Coming
Of course nothing ever happens in a vacuum in the computer industry, and Apple is expected to update iOS and the iPad in the next few months. It will be interesting to see if Apple takes the Android threat as seriously as they need to. Will Apple deliver a huge update to iPad or will this be the normal annual refresh?