Android Honeycomb: Powerful and promising, but not perfect

Google's new Android Honeycomb OS has a lot to offer, but it also has a long way to go before it can deliver the full tablet experience.

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Doing business

With Android 2.2, aka Froyo, Google introduced a slew of new business-friendly features, such as alphanumeric PIN-based lock screens, lock-screen timeouts and password-strength requirements. It also added support for remote data wipes along with auto-account-discovery, calendar sync and global address list look-ups for Exchange.

Honeycomb builds upon Android's growing business focus with the introduction of an advanced encryption system for tablets. The system allows users to fully encrypt the data on their devices -- accounts, settings and all downloaded applications and files -- and then requires a password to decrypt the data every time the tablet is turned on. Only a data-erasing factory reset can circumvent the power-up prompt.

Honeycomb tablets also give business users the opportunity to easily engage in remote videoconferencing via either included tools or new applications being developed for the platform. For example, in addition to the system's integrated Google Talk-based video chat client, third-party developer Fuze Meeting is preparing to launch a multiparty, HD-quality collaboration app aimed squarely at the enterprise market. I saw the app demoed at Google's Honeycomb event in early February, and it looked pretty slick.


Honeycomb offers a full-fledged multitasking and desktop-like browsing experience.

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Compared with other platforms, Android's full-fledged multitasking and desktop-like browsing experience -- thanks to tab support, native Chrome syncing and eventual Flash functionality -- may serve as differentiating factors for business users looking to move into the world of tablets. The fact that the OS allows you to browse a device's file system like a desktop computer's, and drag and drop files without the need for proprietary software, could also serve as a noteworthy advantage for enterprise adoption.

This also goes for Android's nonrestrictive approach to application installation -- the platform's open nature means companies can put any utilities they want on employees' devices, with no outside approval or public distribution required. On a platform like iOS, in comparison, all applications have to be authorized by Apple and posted in the App Store in order to be installed.

The downside

Android Honeycomb isn't all sweet success. While the platform has received some criticism for being slightly rough around the edges, in my experience, Honeycomb's true Achilles' heel really comes down to applications. The handful of hiccups and disappointments I've encountered in using the Motorola Xoom can all be traced to issues with individual apps and their compatibility -- or lack thereof -- with the operating system.

The problem is that, while Honeycomb can theoretically run any Android application -- even those created for use on smartphones -- it doesn't always do it well. Some apps run in only a small section of the tablet-size screen; others expand to take up the entire space but still pale in comparison to their tablet-optimized cousins.

Worse yet, I've encountered a handful of older Android apps that won't run at all or will run only in limited circumstances: Trying to use the widget from Facebook's Android app, for example, results in an error and a blank white box.

To be fair, Google released the final version of its Honeycomb programming tools only on Feb. 22, meaning most developers have had barely a week to work on updating their software.

As such, this setback is likely only temporary. With the ever-increasing rate of growth we've seen in the Android Market these past months -- more than 32,000 new apps were added in February alone, according to third-party analytics firm AndroLib -- I imagine it won't be long before the Honeycomb floodgates open. But for early Android tablet adopters, it's a setback nonetheless.

While the current selection of Honeycomb-specific apps is embarrassingly small, the programs available so far are generally a pleasure to use, especially because Honeycomb allows developers to employ a new series of programming tools to optimize their apps for large screens. The downside is that using these tablet-optimized apps spoils you somewhat and makes you resentful of the nonoptimized experience you get with older applications; the contrast is painfully stark.

Honeycomb also has one significant piece of unfinished business: support for Adobe Flash. Adobe has promised that its tablet-ready Flash Player software will be delivered to Xoom users "within a few weeks." While a delay this short will be a relatively small inconvenience (provided Adobe stays true to its promised timeline), the absence of Flash at Honeycomb's launch is still one more chink in its armor.

Bottom line

All in all, Google's Android Honeycomb OS is a powerful and promising platform for tablets. The software takes the Android experience to new heights, giving users robust opportunities for customization and creating a framework for devices that are far more than just supersized phones.

That said, Honeycomb is still young, and it needs time to mature -- particularly when it comes to the availability and complete compatibility of third-party apps, which are a crucial part of the tablet experience. But if the history of the mobile market is any indication, the growth of Honeycomb's app ecosystem won't take long -- and the platform, aided by the oncoming army of Android tablets, will quickly earn its place as a commanding force in the mobile market.

JR Raphael is a syndicated writer and the author of Computerworld's Android Power blog. You can find him on both Facebook and Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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