The latest version of Google’s mobile operating system is Android OS 4.0 (aka “Ice Cream Sandwich”). This debuted recently on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, but will eventually be running on a wide array of smartphones.
After developing separate operating system editions for smartphones and tablets, Google has finally introduced a unified version of Android which will be used on both types of devices. In practice, the users may have not felt the differences between Gingerbread (Android OS 2.3 intended for smartphones) and Honeycomb (Android OS 3.x intended for tablets), but third-party app developers sure have. Android OS 4.0 brings a unified user interface, as well as unified API for developers.
The changes even go beyond combining the best of both worlds (Honeycomb and Gingerbread). Some improvements are features previously seen in the alternate user interfaces created by device manufacturers, like HTC’s Sense UI, Samsung’s TouchWiz or Sony Ericsson’s Timescape. In addition, some of the bundled apps offer improved functionality and an increase in their available number of options.
Slim lines, bigger images, and more pronounced contrasts of objects like icons, letters, and other markings on the screen are the main features of the new Android OS design. ICS looks more like Honeycomb than Gingerbread, which means those who have been working with tablets containing the Google platform will switch over to it very easily.
In accordance with mobile user interface trends, the old Droid font has been replaced with a new one called “Roboto” with exceptionally slim lines, but wide letters and numbers; this makes Android OS 4.0 look more like Windows Phone than iOS.
Multitasking manipulation has been borrowed from the previous tablet edition. By pressing a key (now located at the bottom of the screen and not on the device casing, according to Google rules), a thumbnail toolbar of the recently opened applications appears. This shows a small image of what was on the display when the app was last active, not just an icon. Background apps can be closed by simply dragging them “off the display” with a simple finger flick to the side. Incidentally, all entries in any list can be deleted similarly in Android ICS.
The lock screen now gives you direct access to either the home screen or the camera application — you drag an icon with a padlock to a suitable position in order to select one of the two offered options. This is a detail borrowed from HTC’s Sense UI and Samsung’s TouchWiz. A likable new feature, which I haven’t seen before, is the option of unlocking the phone with your own face — the device can learn what you look like and unlock itself by engaging the camera to “check” if it is really you.
It is possible to see the notifications panel on lock screen, and it’s not necessary to fully “awaken” the device to find out if any messages have been received, if a call has been missed, or if something else has happened.
All items on the notifications panel related to a person are marked with the person’s image, and you can remove them one by one from the panel, again by simply dragging them off the screen with a finger movement. Even the music player control keys can be set here, and can be managed without unlocking the device.
Homescreen and Apps
The size of desktop widgets can now be altered, which previously was only possible with Android OS 3.x or Samsung’s TouchWiz 4.0 (for instance, Samsung Galaxy S II has this option). A usual set of widgets comes with the operating system (weather, analogue clock, calendar, the messages panel etc.), which are now grouped in a special tab inside the applications drawer. The applications are represented as a matrix with icons, just like before.
These application icons can now be grouped in folders in a much simpler manner — to be precise, the system Apple put in iOS has been “borrowed”. Thus, the icons can be dragged and dropped on the homescreen one on top of the other in order to create a folder, or directly to an existing folder to add them. By touching the folder, its contents appear while the icons can be rearranged inside it or dragged out.
It seems clear that Google didn’t just take the ideas of previous Android versions and HTC or Samsung user interface improvements, but was also inspired a bit by Apple. Lawyers will likely have their plate full with these two companies in the future, given that there is clearly an abundance of evidence to justifify a resumption the patent war. Or that’s the way it seems to me.
Microsoft’s attorneys will surely not be idle, either — Google has omitted the Contacts application in Android OS 4.0 and replaced it with the People application, which is fairly reminiscent of the way in which contacts are kept on Windows Phone. The contacts now have a more modern and dramatic look than they used to, with a high dose of “socialization”, thus their Gtalk status is featured, while images can be taken from Google+.
Facebook or Twitter integration has not been offered on the operating system level (because client applications for these social networks do not come with Android OS 4.0), unlike the API level — this means that Tweets and Facebook statuses will appear here in the future, once the apps are installed.