Android Mobile OS Alert: Google Sweetens Honeycomb Pot, Demos Updates on Xoom

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. - Google was handing out little Android toy robots at the registration line for its Android "Honeycomb" press event here, but the search giant's real agenda was more serious, specifically to show that it's ready to take on market leader Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) iPad.

The news comes at a good time for Android supporters following a report this week that one of the first Android tablets, the Samsung Galaxy Tab, touted as an iPad competitor, is seeing a high rate of returns. A point-of-sale survey conducted by ITG Investment Research said that as many as 16 percent of U.S. consumers who purchased a Samsung Galaxy Tab device have returned it.

But today Google previewed the "Honeycomb" version of Android that's considered better suited for tablets, specifically ones like Motorola's forthcoming Xoom that has a larger form factor than the Tab, with a 10.1-inch screen that's slightly bigger than the iPad's. The Xoom, unveiled at the CES show in Las Vegas last month, is expected to be released in a few months.

"Froyo, the current release of Android that runs on the Galaxy Tab is not really a tablet OS," Creative Strategies analyst Ben Bajarin told InternetNews.com. "The 7-inch devices that are out there now are operating more like big phones, so Google had to do this, upgrade the software specifically for tablets. That's what Apple did."

In a formal presentation and at demo stations here at company head quarters, Google showed off new features optimized for tablets, including a rich, 3D user interface, redesigned widgets and video conferencing using the Xoom's front-facing camera.

"Honeycomb is designed specifically for amazing tablet applications," said Hugo Barra, project manager of Android products at Google.

Among the new features is a new navigation button for multitasking between applications and 3D widgets that enable a more visual view o fuser's files, like books, music and video collections. With a simple swipe of the finger, you can flip through image cards till you find the one you want to play.

"Developers can use these widgets to bubble up important information to the home screen and for users it means quick and easy access to information," said Barra.

Google said Honeycomb leverages a new graphics engine Google developed called Renderscript to aid 2- and 3-D viewing.

Louis Gump, vice president of mobile at CNN, showed a video chat and iReport application for Honeycomb that lets viewers submit stored and live news feeds to the cable news network. iReport runs stories based on user-generated content.

In his onstage demo, Gump showed a series of live and stored video feeds and a category navigation bar designed to help users more easily get at stories they want to read and view. You can also simply swipe through different screens to see what's available.

"In our testing it's been shown to be an incredibly immersive experience," said Gump.

Android Market gets in-app purchasing

Google engineering director Chris Yerga gave an extensive review of changes to Android Market, Google's answer to the iPhone App store, designed to give users easier access to applications and developers more exposure to buyers. While Android Market is the closest thing to an App Store competitor, it is a very distant second place. There are over 300,000 iPhone apps in the App Store, while the newer Android Market has more than 100,000.

"One of the key changes is the new release of the Android Market Webstore, a new way to get applications on the device," said Yerga.

In several demos, he showed how the new browser-based Market makes it easier to buy and install applications with a few clicks. More information on mobile apps is available right on the page, including descriptions, user reviews and the buy button. Google's also added a Tweet button so users can easily share a link via Twitter to apps they bought.

Yerga also previewed in-app purchasing, a feature that's been available for iPhone apps for some time, that Google plans to releases in the next few months. In-app purchasing is a way for users to buy virtual goods or additional levels in games or upgrade to a premium or fuller version of a free application from within the app.

Google's showing that Android has a lot of flexibility in how it can be used for different devices and different ways to interact with it," DisplaySearch analyst Richard Shim told InternetNews.com. "You can see with Honeycomb they're taking advantage of more screen real estate for more graphically-focused experiences.

David Needle is the West Coast bureau chief at InternetNews.com, the news service of

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