Anticipating Android at Google I/O

I spent the day at the Google I/O developer’s conference here in San Francisco. What a great event and hugely popular. I attended all the mobile track sessions, three on Android and one on Gears for mobile.

The day stared with Vic Gundotra’s keynote. Vince’s message was that Google wants to give developers the tools to build a better web, something Google and developers both stand to benefit from. He mentioned Google’s debt to the Open Source movement and said Google is giving code back to the community. The rest of the keynote was a series of presentations on specific Google platforms and APIs. I’m not going to go into detail on the non-mobile aspects of this as I want to focus on the mobile stuff.

Android was one of the featured topics of the keynote. Android Engineering Director Steve Horowitz demoed an Android prototype running an as yet unreleased version of the OS. It was a touchscreen device with a new and very impressive version of the GUI. Very touch oriented and it includes several interesting UI paradigms.

  • There’s a status bar at the top of every screen with the usual indicators for signal strength, battery, etc. plus notification icons for things like missed calls, messages or calendar events. The cool part happens when you touch the status bar and drag down. The status bar pulls down, unrolling like a window shade to reveal the details of the notifications, like who called and message and calendar entry titles.
  • The home screen is actually a carousel style interface, the default view is the usual grid of application icons but you can drag to the right or left to bring up mostly blank areas where you can create shortcuts by tapping the screen and choosing from a menu of things like contacts, browser bookmarks, messages and music tracks. Both shortcuts and default widgets like a clock and Google search box can be repositioned simply by dragging.
  • Zooming is implemented with a magnifier metaphor. Double tapping brings up a magnifing glass which can be moved around by dragging. Tapping the magnifier again zooms into the selected section. Steve only demoed this in the browser, I don’t know if zooming works in other apps. It looks like there is only one level of zoom.

Steve also showed Google Maps on Android, he mentioned that the device was running on a 3G mobile network not WiFi. The map tiles loaded quickly as he scrolled around the map by dragging. This didn’t surprise me as I see similar performance from Google Maps on my N95 using ATT’s relatively slow, ~300Kbps UTMS network in San Francisco. Then he showed Street View, something S60 GMaps doesn’t have. Street view supports a compass function on Android and as he panned the device around the the street view images scrolled to reorient to whatever direction the phone was facing – that was the real wow moment of the demo. Watch the full demo here on YouTube.

There’s a lot of interest in Android, the afternoon Android sessions were so full that Google had to turn people away to keep the fire marshals happy, something that didn’t happen to any of the non-mobile sessions

So when can we expect to see Android phones on the market? The Google reps I talked to are sticking to the official “second half of this year”. The only actual device I saw at the conference was the one shown in the keynote. That indicates to me that the release is still months away, probably not until late in the fourth quarter. I also heard that there would be no early access to hardware for developers and that there would probably only be one Android model released this year, but that a year from now there should be quite a few. One of the Android team members mentioned that T-Mobile had committed to offering an Android device this year. I’m not sure if that means T-Mobile USA though.

To be continued…