January 31, 2011, 9:59 AM —
Wednesday is shaping up to be a day full of tablet news. As I noted last week, News Corp. and Apple will be announcing the launch of the world’s first iPad-only newspaper known as the Daily (and presumably Apple’s new subscription feature for iPad publication apps). This weekend, Google announced that it will be hosting its own media event on the same day and offering a preview of its upcoming Honeycomb release of Android that will be optimized for tablets.
The event if unprecedented as Google rarely provides media demonstrations of any products before they ship. This is, in fact, the first time Google has offered any advance preview of an Android release.
Google said that Honeycomb has been designed from the ground up as a tablet OS during the announcement of the Honeycomb SDK announcement. This contrasts with current Android tablets like the Galaxy Tab that run current versions of Android, which is designed solely for smartphones (leading to some less than ideal display and functionality on tablets, particularly where third-party apps are concerned).
A preview version of the SDK was made available to Android developers earlier this month. Some previews of Honeycomb running in the SDK’s Android emulator have already popped up online, though several areas of the OS aren’t available in the emulator. It also seems clear that Honeycomb preview in the SDK is far from finished.
The existing previews (such as those from Engadget, Ars Technica, and Google itself) paint a compelling picture of Honeycomb as a tablet OS. The home screen and application drawer appear to be completely redesigned to take advantage of the extra screen real estate for available applications, widgets, and even live previews of things like apps and web pages. The Settings app seems to have been reworked similarly to the way Apple expanded the phone’s Settings app for the iPad. Some built-in apps, however don’t seem to have been updated at all yet.
One big question about Honeycomb is whether it will be specifically designed for tablets or not. Google could essentially create a tablet version of Android separate from the smartphone version or it could create a single release that runs on both types of devices and optimizes the display of the OS and applications appropriately (as Apple has done). The current Honeycomb SDK release automatically displays in a tablet format in the Android emulator (though Ars Technica was able to force the emulator to launch Honeycomb in a smartphone form factor as part of its initial Honeycomb preview article, the results weren’t particularly successful).
The event on Wednesday is an opportunity for Google to answers about Honeycomb as well as to further hype interest in the release. With so many Android tablets ready to launch with Honeycomb, the event could serve as a very effective launch platform for the Motorola Xoom (expected to ship in the next few weeks) and other tablets that are expected to launch over the coming weeks and months.
The timing could be excellent for Google and Android tablet manufacturers as it is planned for a full week before HP’s webOS announcement (which is pretty certain to include webOS tablets as well as other devices) and nearly two weeks before the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona (which will be full of vendors showing tablets and smartphones across all manner of platforms and form factors). It also hits before the launch of the Verizon iPhone and any Apple announcement of a next-generation iPad.
As I’ve said repeatedly, this year is going to be an exciting one in the mobile device market, particularly in the area of tablets. Google’s preview is certain to be just the first of a series of tablet announcements and events that we’ll see over the remaining weeks of winter and the beginning of spring.