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Why Ice Cream Sandwich May Make or Break Android

By Ryan Whitwam

Google needs to wow us to stay on top long-term.

Google finally told us back at Google I/O that the next version of the platform would be called Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS). It has been expected in late 2011, possible around the Thanksgiving time frame. But a recent report over at BGR claims that ICS is being pushed up for an October unveiling.

There are a few reasons to believe this, but we can’t be sure the rumors are true. What is certain is that ICS is going to be a make or break moment for the future of Android. The clouds are gathering, the armies are assembling, and a tiny green robot seeks to maintain its lead. Here is why Ice Cream Sandwich is so important.

Timing is everything

To an Android aficionado, November of 2009 was a watershed moment for the platform. This is when the Motorola Droid was released on Verizon. It came at the perfect moment. The iPhone’s specs were starting to feel dated, the Palm Pre was flopping, and users wanted choices. The original Droid sold several hundred thousand units in that first month, and crossed one million sales in a little over two months.

So at the end of October 2011, there will be many thousands of Droid owners that are done with their two-year contract. While the Droid was definitely top of the line at launch, it was quickly eclipsed by devices like the Nexus One and Droid Incredible. For users that care about such things, it was a little galling to be left in the dust so fast.

The hardware on the Droid also didn’t hold up too well. The 550MHz OMAP chip wasn’t able to fully keep up with faster games. Many users have resorted to modding the device, which was very hacker friendly. This last point might keep some users in the Droid for a while, but regular users, MOST users, will be looking for the next big thing.

Google has an opportunity to get these thousands of Droid owners into their second Android phone. If there are new and compelling options on the way with Ice Cream Sandwich, potential buyers may be tempted to wait for those rather than go with an iPhone or Windows Phone 7 device.

Bringing tablets and phones together

Honeycomb is essentially a beta product. We all know it, and Google knows it. That’s why it’s not in the Android Open Source Repository. This is a giant beta test with thousands of participants and a dozen OEMs taking part. Google needed to see how Android would work on tablets, and they have.

The things learned from Honeycomb will be used to make ICS a better experience on tablets and phones. This is where we see how Google brings the two forks together. Can they design a compelling user experience? Perhaps, but the better question might be: can they make a consistently compelling user experience on phones and tablets?

The phone and tablet versions of the operating system have little to do with each other right now. By making a user experience more cohesive between the types of devices, more users could start to see an Android tablet as a device to get. Apple has always had the advantage in that iPhone users could pick up an iPad and know how to use it. Android needs that kind of experience.

Google hired Matias Duarte (the designer of the webOS UI) over a year ago, and we expect ICS to be the first version of the OS that he has gotten to craft from the start. If Google has the UI chops to show, this is when we will see them. It’s time that Android got prettied up.

Features Needed

Android has been adding a feature here and there in each release, but ICS is going to be a big one. It has to be in order to keep users interested. Other platforms have been advancing while Google has been experimenting with Honeycomb. Consumers are used to seeing Android-like features elsewhere. Look at the new iOS notification scheme, for instance. Google needs to make sure the improved Honeycomb notifications reach the phone.

One major feature addition Google need to push out is better dual core support. Honeycomb supports dual-core chips fairly well, but Gingerbread phones aren’t so lucky. The hardware is in use, but the OS doesn’t know how to properly divide work between two cores. The Dalvik virtual machine that runs apps is also not adept at running dual-core apps. As such. most high end games are written in native code.

The rumor is that Google is ditching all the system buttons in ICS, much as they have in Honeycomb. Basically, they might out-Jobs, Steve Jobs. Execution for this is going to be key. If it is done poorly, users are going to be dealing with on-screen controls that they don’t like but have to give up screen real estate to. We can’t think of a more frustrating user experience. This would be a big step for the platform one way or the other.

The iPhone and Windows Phone

There was a time not that long ago that the iPhone and Android feature sets were very different. But these days, there are a lot more similarities. Add to that the fact that the iPhone is finally on Verizon, and you can see why ICS is important.

If Apple releases the iPhone 5 in the rumored September-October time frame, everyone will be looking to Google for a response. That response has to be a competent ICS release. If things don’t go well, or the features aren’t there, it will be called a failure. Users that might have otherwise gone with Android could make the jump to iOS. This is especially true of the Motorola Droid users discussed above.

Even the lowly Windows Phone 7 has a chance to outshine Android if Google doesn’t bring its A-game. The Mango update brings several great features like voice to text, turn-by-turn directions, and multitasking. These are all features that Android has used as differentiators in past software versions. If the young upstart OS from Redmond is adding these things, Google needs to counter in ICS.

Google has a strong market position right now. Android sales are through the roof and the increased interest is convincing developers to get on Android. We hope that the folks at Mountain View know how pivotal ICS is going to be. This will be a user interface triumph for Duarte and Google if tablets and phones can be combined into a cohesive experience. Users will reward them if this comes to pass, and Apple might even take notice.

Getting the right features in place will be necessary to keep the OS attractive to new and renewing users. A Droid user on a 2-year agreement is going to be feeling a little weary, and the same old stuff isn’t going the guarantee their continued allegiance to Android. This is the big show; Google needs to pull out all the stops.