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Ice Cream Sandwich: Just how tasty will it be?

by Marty Gabel

Now that Google I/O is over, it’s time to reflect on all the Android goodness we can expect in the future, one of which is the new 2.4 update to the Android OS, this time deliciously code-named Ice Cream Sandwich.

When will it arrive?

Well, we’re not quite sure yet, but if Google is truly going to address platform fragmentation, perhaps we’ll all be lucky enough to consume our Ice Cream Sandwiches around the same time, instead of waiting months for it to roll out from carrier to carrier and smartphone to smartphone. That being said, what can we expect from the new OS update? Information is still somewhat lacking, but here’s some tidbits we’ve gleaned.

One of the main things Google stressed is how future updates for Android will be merged so they adapt and operate on all smartphones, tablets and other devices. Honeycomb 3.0 was introduced as a tablet-specific operating system, but future updates will see one update for all Android users. Ice Cream Sandwich will, however, pull in a lot of the cool user-interface elements first demonstrated in Honeycomb like resizable widgets that can be expanded both horizontally and vertically. There will also be an updated task manager and application launcher to make switching between apps more seamless and straightforward.

Much has been discussed about the new Holographic UI, first mentioned back in January. I’m not quite sure exactly what that’s all about, but it sounds pretty fancy and futuristic. I doubt we’ll all able to act like Tom Cruise in Minority Report just yet (thankfully), but the notion of moving and shuffling UI elements around is certainly intriguing.

However, the first thing that springs to mind is -- how will this all work on older Android devices? Will my almost two-year-old device be too sluggish to take advantage of all the bells and whistles this new UI offers? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. At the same time, how will manufacturer’s interfaces like HTC’s Sense and Samsung’s TouchWiz work with Ice Cream Sandwich? Despite Google’s promise to address manufacturer and device fragmentation, it’s unknown how such elements will work with these manufacturer ‘skins.’

Oh, if only every phone maker and carrier could instead just use the plain and simple vanilla UI instead of pre-loading their own on top, life would be easier. Once again, it’s up to users to either purchase a phone like the Nexus S or LG Optimus G2X (if you’re on a network that supports it), or simply root your phone and install a custom ROM. There are, of course, still plenty of great launcher alternatives in the Android Market, but they never really clear out the clutter unless your phone is stripped down to the basics.

Besides the interface enhancements, there’s some other significant technical stuff to look forward to. Devices will have the ability to act as a USB host and connect things like a mouse, game controller or keyboard. An ‘open accessory API’ will allow Android devices to interact with things like exercise machines and musical equipment. Phones will also work better with Google TV once that’s updated, and the much-vaulted NFC capabilities of smartphones and tablets will come into effect.

Finally, there’s likely to be better face-tracking and camera shifting based on voice recognition. I have no idea what that means, but it sure sounds like fun.