Android 4.0 makes its global debut

Big phone, new SDK, no source code sighted yet

Night owls and early adopters were rewarded for their persistence late Tuesday evening with the online unveiling of the release of Android 4.0 on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus.

The Nexus, which features a 1.2GHz dual-core processor, LTE communication, and a 4.65-inch HD Super AMOLED curved display with 720p resolution, is the first commercial phone to feature Android 4.0, code-named Ice Cream Sandwich.

Among the phone's many new features includes a completely software-based set of navigation controls (no capacitive buttons), a much faster camera, and support for near-field communications, a feature vital for the implementation of Google Wallet, Google's electronic payment system.

The new phone will be released "strategically" in the United States, Europe, and Asia beginning in early November, according to Kevin Packingham, Samsung Senior VP for Product Innovation, but there's no word on exactly which carriers will have the device, except for the carrier in Japan: NTT DoCoMo.

And while the SDK was made available during the presentation that took place at 1000 Wednesday morning Hong Kong time (2200 Tuesday night on the US East Coast), the source code for Android 4.0 was unavailable. This is likely little surprise to most Android watchers, given Google's decision to keep the source for the last version of Android, Honeycomb, to themselves.

Still, all indications in the press have indicated that Google does plan to release the Apache-licensed parts of Android 4.0 at some point.

The emphasis of the new version of Android seems to be two-fold: making use of the pretty-darn big screen, and steering the user interface towards a "magazine-like" design that at times looked reminiscent of the Metro UI demoed recently for Windows 8.

That resemblance was fleeting, thank goodness, but it's enough to draw the comparison. It also points to a potential new direction for Android down the road. With the heavy emphasis on the "magazine" elements of the new UI, I could not help but wonder how long it will be before Android makes a jump to a more HTML5-based platform. "Magazine" is a term that's used quite a bit in HTML5 design circles, which can incorporate publishing elements in ways "traditional" web pages don't.

For now, Ice Cream Sandwich would be a mere step in that direction, and no mention of HTML5 was made during the hour-long demo Tuesday night.

The demo concentrated on four elements of change for the Galaxy Nexus phone:

  • Speed. The phone will have LTE or HSPA+ capabilities depending on market locale and consumer demand. It will also feature a 1.2-GHz dual-core processor.
  • Screen. The HD Super AMOLED, 4.65-inch display will feature a 1280X780 native resolution. In full video mode, this means a 16:9 aspect ratio wide screen.
  • Design. The phone will have the same contour display as with Nexus S, but slimmer at only 8.94 mm thick. The 4.29-mm bezel is designed to maximize the screen. The 5-megapixel HD camera has zero shutter lag, panorama shots, and 1080p HD video recording. Along with near-field communications, there's even a barometer on this thing.

That's three of the four big changes in the new device, the fourth being the operating system. There were many design changes touched on in the demonstration, including.

  • Face Unlock, a facial recognition technology to unlock phone.
  • A new People app that integrates and aggregates all of your contacts' contact and social media information and updates.
  • Instant vocal recognition for entering text.
  • A new tabbed browser.
  • A redesigned Gmail app.

There's a lot more, of course. There's a real sense here that Google went deep into the OS and re-worked things from the ground up. Here's an example of one of those deep changes: you can monitor data usage in the Settings, tracking monthly data usage and setting warnings and even a cutoff for data usage to keep costs down. You can even set foreground and background data usage settings for individual apps… which means no more background data surprises on your phone bill.

While we wait for the actual release, there will be the inevitable comparisons to the new iPhone 4S. The Verge has a numbers chart up now, which breaks down some of the features that are hit and miss among recent phone releases. (Psst: no world-phone Galaxy Nexus.)

As the November release data approaches, many questions will need to be answered about Ice Cream Sandwich, beyond just the availability of its source code (though that's a big one for me). Another big question: will Android 4.0 be able to run on older phones, or it is just for the Galaxy Nexus and onwards?

Let the pondering begin.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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