Google's Honeycomb will create serious iPad competitors

Google's preview of Honeycomb showed a tablet OS iterative of, but also unique and ahead of, Apple's iPad.

Google showed off its upcoming Honeycomb release at an unprecedented media event this afternoon (you can watch the entire event on Android's official YouTube page). The company also used the opportunity to highlight other Android additions, namely the new web version of the Android Market (which is a vast and much needed improvement over the app-only approach to the Android Market we've had to deal with up until now).

Overall, there appears to be a lot to like about Honeycomb. It provides a new set of developer APIs that allow developers to create apps optimized for a tablet experience. It includes a major makeover of the Android home screen, offers the concept of code fragments that developers can use to make apps optimized for both tablets and smartphones as well as for different screen orientations, includes a robust new 3D visual rendering system, offers updated music and video capabilities, and includes support for dual core processors. While some of the new features and interfaces seem pretty iterative of Apple's work with iOS on the iPad, some are also unique and offer functionality beyond the iPad.

One major advance that takes the tablet experience to another level beyond Apple's iOS and the iPad is the revamped home screen. Android's home screen has always been more functional than its iOS counterpart by allowing users to install widgets that display real-time data in addition to lists of apps. Honeycomb embraces this approach with more active widgets including those that offer life previews of apps and that offer stacks of app data (such as web pages) that can be browsed directly from the home screen without launching an app. The widget approach really shines in a tablet OS and it makes the iPad's homescreen seem dated by comparison.

Another area where Honeycomb outpaces the iPad is in its new notification system. Notifications are designed to be less obtrusive than their iPad counterparts. iOS notifications display as a bubble in the middle of the screen, obscuring information and obstructing work until they are acknowledged, which often entails switching to the notifying app, or ignored. They are also limited in what information they present. Honeycomb notifications contain more detail, can be ignored until a user is ready to deal with them, and can present additional information and actions related to what the notification is presenting (such as a user's contact information and image when dealing with chat or similar notifications).

In other areas, Honeycomb seems to borrow heavily from iOS. A great example from today's demo is the GMail app, which offers views almost identical to the iPad's Mail app and which adjusts in similar manners between portrait and landscape mode (earlier previews show a similar iterative design in the Settings app). The music app also seems to borrow, a little less obviously, from Apple's Coverflow view from iOS, iTunes, and Mac OS X. Similarly, the new 3D video wall view in the YouTube apps seems to borrow from Apple's Top Sites view in its Safari web browser.

There are also components of Honeycomb that are impressive but seem unnecessarily complex. The camera app was one example. While I can appreciate the number of settings (exposure, white balance, etc.) that are instantly available, the view seemed like it could easily confuse new users who just want a basic point and click option.

Overall, I was extremely impressed by this preview. When Honeycomb tablets like the Motorola Xoom and LG G-Slate go on sale later this month, it seems pretty clear that Apple will finally have some serious competition in the tablet space. In fact, some of the Honeycomb features may make Android tablets a more compelling choice than the current iPad (or even a next-generation iPad until Apple provides a major update to iOS, which isn't likely to happen until this summer). If only, Motorola's Xoom ad for the Super Bowl were anywhere near as compelling as the tablet itself is likely to be.

What's your take? Will Honeycomb spell trouble for Apple and the iPad? Are you considering buying an Android tablet once Honeycomb is released? Or is Google grasping at straws in a vain attempt to take market share from Apple? Let us know what you think in the comments.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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