Android Honeycomb: 4 interesting facts you probably haven't heard

Article copyright 2011 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

Android Honeycomb

Can't get enough Honeycomb in your diet? You aren't alone.

Since we first caught a glimpse of Google's Android Honeycomb OS back in December, we've been full of questions. Honeycomb is the first Android edition to be optimized for tablets -- and it's a whole new beast from the operating system we've come to know.

This week, Google showed off some of Honeycomb's features at a media event in Mountain View. The Android team also offered up the first hands-on demos of the Motorola Xoom, the soon-to-launch inaugural Honeycomb device. But there's still plenty left to learn.

Here are a few random things I've recently discovered.

1. Honeycomb is now "feature-complete."

Tech companies are known for occasionally working up to the last minute on devices, especially ones with software as intricate as smartphones and tablets. Honeycomb, however, has now reached a "feature-complete" state, a member of the Android team tells me -- meaning there may be a few random tweaks made here and there, but for the most part, what we saw this week is pretty much what we're going to see on store shelves. And from what I was told, we'll be seeing those Xoom tablets on store shelves "very soon."

No big surprise on the timing, of course; that jives with everything we've heard about the Xoom's launch in recent weeks. Moto Mobility CEO Sanjay Jha has said the device will likely ship in late February. Unofficial rumors have pointed to the 17th as the date to watch. The fact that the software is now considered more or less finished -- a sharp contrast to the last time we saw it, at CES in January -- certainly makes an imminent debut seem plausible.

2. Honeycomb could reach smartphones; it's still up in the air.

One thing I was hoping to learn at Wednesday's Google event was what the roadmap for Android looked like -- in other words, where do we go from here? Will phones eventually get Honeycomb, or will we now have two separate paths of Android -- one for smartphones, and one for tablets?

During Google's official presentation on Wednesday, the Android team didn't say much. After the session, however, Google reps told me why they're staying so quiet: They aren't completely sure how things will shake out.

Indeed, Android chief Andy Rubin has been very careful with his wording when talking about Honeycomb's future. Though Google has described Honeycomb as an OS that was "designed from the ground up for devices with larger screen sizes," Rubin has dropped hints about how Honeycomb's new features could work on phones, too.

Specifics aside, Rubin has said very explicitly that what we see in Honeycomb is definitely the direction all of Android will be heading -- and I heard similar sentiments from Google reps this week. When or how Honeycomb will reach smartphones is still to-be-determined, I'm told, but the visual components of the new OS will almost certainly land on all types of devices sooner or later.

Ultimately, then, the question appears to be whether Honeycomb itself ends up having multiple "profiles" -- one for tablets, one for smartphones -- or whether some of Honeycomb's visual features end up being ported over to a separate phone-specific edition of the Android OS. One way or another, though, the new look and feel introduced in Honeycomb will eventually become universal.

(For more thoughts and analysis on this, see my previous story: "Will Android Honeycomb come to smartphones?")

3. Android apps will now be able to detect whether they're running on a tablet or a phone and respond accordingly.

With all these Honeycomb-specific features now available to Android apps, one has to wonder whether developers will soon start offering multiple versions of their programs -- one for Honeycomb-running tablets, and one for non-Honeycomb phones. Even some of the developers at Wednesday's event weren't sure what to expect. I asked Google, and the simple answer: That won't be necessary.

An Android team member tells me the same APK -- the compressed file format used by Android applications -- will work on both a Honeycomb tablet and an Android phone, even if the app has Honeycomb-exclusive features built in. The app will be able to recognize which form it's on, I'm told, and then load the appropriate version and features for the device; there'll be no need for multiple tablet/smartphone versions to exist.

Now, with that said, some Honeycomb apps may still be tablet-only. If a developer creates an app exclusively for Honeycomb, then it'll work only for Honeycomb. But if a developer wants to offer tablet-specific enhancements while still providing a smartphone-compatible version, he'll be able to do it within a single application.

4. Honeycomb tablets will automatically sync apps and settings with your phone and stay in sync as time moves on.

The first time you use a Honeycomb tablet like the Xoom, the device will be able to automatically import the settings and preferences from your existing Android phone (provided that both devices are set up with the same Google account). The tablet will even be able to download and install all of the apps you've put on your smartphone in one big swoop.

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The phone-tablet syncing won't stop at that initial setup, either. As a Google rep explained it to me, when you download a new Android app on one device, it'll automatically show up on the other device, too. You can opt to delete an app individually from either device, of course, if you so choose. You can also see all of your collective apps at a glance and move apps manually from one device to another via the "My Market Account" section of Google's new Web-based Android Market.

Craving even more Honeycomb nuggets? Check out "Getting to know Android Honeycomb" for my hands-on impressions of Android 3.0 and the Motorola Xoom.

JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other tasty technology. You can find him on Facebook, on Twitter, or at eSarcasm, his geek-humor getaway.

Article copyright 2011 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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