Android Ice Cream Sandwich: Everything we know so far

By JR Raphael (@jr_raphael)

Ice Cream Sandwich

I scream, you scream, we all scream for Ice Cream. Ice Cream Sandwich, that is -- the upcoming new release of Google's Android operating system. We've been hearing about this thing for months, and now, the tasty-sounding treat is finally almost within our reach. 

Google hasn't divulged too many specifics about its next-gen Android OS just yet, but there are a few things we know about what's lurking beneath that shiny wrapper. Here's a roundup of all the Ice Cream Sandwich info we've heard so far.

Ice Cream Sandwich will arrive in October or November.

From the get-go, Google has promised a fourth-quarter release for its Ice Cream Sandwich version of Android. Since then, the focus has been narrowed down to October or November -- a time frame confirmed by Google's Eric Schmidt during a talk in San Francisco this week. The October-November time frame makes sense, of course; Google wants the software and any accompanying hardware on the market in time for the holiday sales rush, and pushing to December would be pushing its luck.

Ice Cream Sandwich will run on both phones and tablets.

Currently, the Android OS has two separate forks: Android 2.3, or Gingerbread, for phones, and Android 3.2, or Honeycomb, for tablets. The reason: Honeycomb was designed specifically for tablet-sized devices and doesn't include proper support to run on phones.

Ice Cream Sandwich, aside from making you rather peckish, brings an end to that device-based disparity. ICS, to use Google's words, will be "one OS that runs everywhere"; whether you're on a phone, a tablet, or some other kind of gadget (Android-powered belt, anyone?), it'll be the version made for you.

Ice Cream Sandwich will build off of Honeycomb's interface.

With its Honeycomb release, Google introduced a whole new look and feel for the Android operating system. Gone is the top-of-screen notification bar; instead, system messages pop up in the lower-right corner of the display, where other pertinent info is also available. Apps are accessible via a link on the top-right of the display, as is a newly designed home screen customization tool. And perhaps most notably, the need for physical buttons is eliminated; the software itself contains a series of navigation buttons positioned in the lower-left corner of the screen.

Honeycomb also brings about an updated multitasking tool and the ability to use resizable, scrollable widgets on the home screen.

Ice Cream Sandwich will build upon that reimagined design. Whether you're using a tablet or a phone, ICS will give you Honeycomb's "holographic interface" along with its multitasking setup, updated home screen launcher, and rich widget support.

A handful of alleged leaked screenshots may give us a very basic idea of where Ice Cream Sandwich is going. There's certainly no confirmation that they're real, but the images show early signs of what could be these flourishes in action. Even if they are legitimate, odds are the screenshots were taken from a very early development build of ICS and are consequently not fully indicative of how the final product will look.

Ice Cream Sandwich will be open source.

With Honeycomb, Google took the unusual step of not releasing the software's source code for developer and hacker use. The reason, according to the Android team, is that Honeycomb wasn't made to run on phones -- and Google didn't want people and manufacturers trying to port it to smaller devices and getting subpar experiences.

Ice Cream Sandwich, like Android's pre-Honeycomb releases, will be an open source product; Google has said that it plans to make the code widely available.

Ice Cream Sandwich may or may not be Android 4.0.

Despite media and blog reports confidently referring to ICS as "Android 4.0," there's no indication yet that Google has even decided on a version number for the release. The Android team has said in the past that it typically waits to assign a formal number until the very last minute, using only the dessert-themed name to refer to the product during development.

Ice Cream Sandwich very well may be Android 4.0 -- that'd make enough sense -- but calling it that now is simply jumping the gun. Remember, prior to its release, many people confidently called Gingerbread "Android 2.4" for no apparent reason. That assumption turned out to be wrong. (Some people have also referred to ICS as 2.4, incidentally -- again, no rhyme or reason to that unsubstantiated guess.)

Google may introduce a new Nexus phone with the ICS release.

Though not officially confirmed, all signs suggest Google has a new Nexus-style device in the works to launch alongside its Ice Cream Sandwich release. Believed to be called the Nexus Prime, the phone is rumored to be made by Samsung. Leaks point to the device having either a 4.5-inch or 4.65-inch Super AMOLED HD display with 1280-by-720 resolution and a 1.5GHz dual-core CPU.

[UPDATESamsung shows off its shiny new Nexus] 

Don't get too attached to the Nexus Prime name just yet, though: A new rumor out today says the phone will actually be called the Samsung Galaxy Prime. Other reports suggest a second Ice Cream Sandwich device could be in the works -- this one branded as the Verizon Droid Prime.

The specifics are all unofficial and shakily sourced at this point, so take them with a grain of salt -- but one way or another, it sure looks like something is on the way.

It's too soon to say what current Android devices will get the ICS upgrade.

The big question with an Android upgrade is always: "Will my device get it?" With Ice Cream Sandwich, it's just too soon to say; most manufacturers and carriers won't commit to any upgrade plans until well after the software is released, and even then, many will avoid saying anything too specific until they're almost ready to start a rollout.

[Android 2.3 upgrade list: Is your phone getting Gingerbread?]

That said, it seems like a safe bet that the Nexus S and Motorola Xoom will be among the first existing devices to receive ICS; as Google's reference devices for Android phones and tablets and as "pure Google experience" devices, those gadgets are generally guaranteed first grabs at Android OS upgrades. One would imagine the slightly older Nexus One phone won't be far behind.



Just today, reps from Sony reportedly told a U.K. website that their company's 2011 Xperia phones would all be upgraded to Ice Cream Sandwich. Of course, there's no telling when that upgrade might actually happen, especially given Sony's pokey track record. (Update: And sure enough, Sony has already backtracked, telling the same U.K. website it's made no official decision about ICS updates so far.)

We could sit here all day and guess about the fate of other Android devices, but that's just what we'd be doing: guessing. It certainly seems likely that most recent phones and tablets will be upgraded, particularly the higher-end models, but until ICS comes out and companies start talking, anything we say is simply speculation. 

Ice Cream Sandwich is a really freakin' long name to type.

Trust me on that one -- my fingers are exhausted. Time to go take a break. And maybe eat an ice cream sandwich.

UPDATE [9/19/11]: New info here.

JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other tasty technology. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

Article copyright 2011 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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