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11 May 2011, 10:49

Google I/O opens with Android

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Google IO Logo The Google I/O 2011 developer conference, which began on Tuesday and is being held at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, is very much focused on Android and Chrome. More than 5,000 developers managed to get hold of the hottest ticket in town – the event was sold out within an hour of being announced. According to Google's blog, two topics are set to dominate the event: the Android mobile operating system and the Chrome web browser. The opening keynote presentation was all about Android and related services.

Google said that it has activated more than 100 million Android devices to date worldwide, with 400,000 activations being added each day. The company also noted that there are now more than 310 Android devices from 36 manufacturers on 215 mobile carriers in 112 countries.

The Google engineers also had a few titbits for developers up their sleeves: from version 3.1, if the hardware supports it, Android tablets will be able to work as USB hosts and, for example, be able to access USB flash drives; Google demonstrated the new functionality using an Xbox controller. Customers of US network operator Verizon will get the new version with immediate effect. Google also wants to provide developers with tools to make it easier to adapt applications for different screen resolutions. Google TV hardware will also get the latest Honeycomb Android version and the Android Market.

Although Google did not specifically announce the fusion of the latest phone version of Android, Gingerbread (2.3.4), and the latest tablet version, Honeycomb (3.0), developers were told to expect "one OS that runs everywhere" in the form of "Ice Cream Sandwich". The code name has been circulating in the media for a while but now Google have given it a time frame; the first version is scheduled for a Q4 release and will include a intelligently self customising status and action bar which adapts to the form factor of the device. Google has also extended the camera functionality, so that focus can now automatically switch from one person to the next according to who is talking.

Google also plans to reduce Android fragmentation through a partnership with a number of network operators and hardware vendors. Companies including HTC, LG, Motorola, Samsung and Sony Ericsson will, hardware permitting, update their Android smartphones with the latest version of the operating system for an 18 month period.

Google also presented two new web services for Android devices – a video rental service and (as anticipated) online music storage. With immediate effect, US users will be able to rent and stream thousands of HD-quality films from the Android Market on tablets and smartphones. Rental costs will start at $1.99 and films will be available for up to 30 days. Similar to Apple's competing product, once a user has started watching a film, they will have 24 hours to finish viewing it. Individual films can also be downloaded to watch offline on the device. The extension for Android is already included in Honeycomb 3.1 and will be released for Android 2.2 and later as an app in the next few weeks.

The Music Beta is a cloud storage service which users can fill with up to 20,000 tracks. Windows and Mac OS X clients allow users to sync their music collections. The tracks can be played from the web on Android devices and can be organised into playlists. The instant mix function generates playlists containing tracks which go with a particular song. Tracks and playlists can be downloaded for offline use. The service will be launched as a free beta in the US in the next few weeks, with Google releasing an app for Android 2.2 "Froyo". The presentation made no mention of online music sales.

Google also demonstrated how Android smartphones and tablets will interact with accessory devices in future. The newly released Android Open Accessory development kit sets out how devices connected to Android devices via USB communicate with them and charge the device's battery. The development kit was demonstrated using a home training machine with a USB connection to a Nexus S smartphone. Audio equipment manufacturers are likely to be quicker to climb on board, as there is already a wide range of music players already available for Apple's iPod and iPhone. Google has given a hand up to accessory vendors by providing an Arduino-based reference device. Android versions 2.3 and 3.0 already support the new USB accessory interface. Google is planning to add support for Bluetooth in future.

The presentation concluded with a few blue sky ideas from Google's labs, all still some years from product status. The Android@Home program takes Android accessories one step further, and will – one day – be able to connect to any electronic device. When this happens, Android smartphones will be able to control washing machines, fridges and LED lighting. If Google has its way, Android is set to become the operating system for the smart home.

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