Android 4, Ice Cream Sandwich, goes to developers with better mail, faster graphics

The coolest new features are also the biggest security risks, but the UI is sure pretty

Developers are getting their first look at the next major version of the Android OS— Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich," which is designed to unify the interfaces for tablets and smartphones that diverged briefly in Android 3.0 as Google tried to adapt to the larger form factor of the suddenly popular tablets.

Android 4: Ice Cream Sandwich, which sounds like the most unfortunately named science fiction movie sequel of all time, but only if you ignore all the even sillier things it sounds like – is designed to give users better control over their use of the network, better connections and camera controls and more sophisticated built-in apps.

A whole raft of those features might turn out to be so useful and convenient users won't be able to keep their hands off them, while simultaneously being so incredibly insecure that hackers will be able to put their hands on anything.

Chief among these is Android Beam, a near-field-communications radio broadcast capability used primarily in corporate security cards and some RFID-enabled credit cards that let users register their payment data just by waving the card within a few inches of a receiver on a door lock, vending machine or checkout counter.

NFC itself is as secure as any other wireless protocol (meaning, not very), but its addition to Android and the dozens of form factors and manufacturer-customized code running in each is guaranteed to either break it or open unsuspected security holes.

The risk is greater because Android 4 will connect RFC directly to many of its interactive applications that are designed to let users transfer contact information, apps, documents or other files trouble-free with a bump, click or even accidental wave near another active Android Beam source.

Ice Cream Sandwich also connects the camera to the lock mechanism to allow facial recognition software to unlock your phone, improve the awkward application management and accelerate the graphics, improve spelling, make the execrable built-in software keyboard a more accurate typing surface and – for developers – unify the UI toolkit, APIs and other tools to make dev and customization simpler.

Among the features that should make most Android users smile is a better, faster, more accurate voice-to-text engine, the ability to dismiss tasks, notifications and browser tabs with a swipe, faster response to calls, unified work, school and social calendars with more scheduling features and gesture support and – much more useful many more times per day – a built-in email app that supports folders, sub-folders and simpler integration of accounts.

For businesses, Android 4.0 includes built-in APIs for virtual private networks and keychain credential-management systems.

It also has a feature that could be important considering the number of hacks that have turned up lately designed to take remote control of other people's webcams: a policy manager that lets administrators disable onboard cameras.

The highlights and feature rundown for developers is here. The SDK and information about it is here.

Pretty pictures and feature lists aimed at users are here.

And, no kidding, it really is pretty.

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