May 10, 2011 at 3:22 PM ET
Google has an ongoing problem: There are too many different versions of its software out there, running on too many different machines. Rather than rein in the number of possible devices — a tactic preferred by Apple and Microsoft, among others — Google is embarking on a much more challenging task: To create one OS that can drive 'em all.
I scream, you scream
Its nickname, Ice Cream Sandwich, belies the fact that it's software engineering ambition in its extreme. Google is promising the OS update by the year's end. Central to the task is writing software tools that do not require apps to work with specific screen resolution or power demands. And because the goal is to have this same OS run not just on phones and tablets, but set-top boxes and other systems, Google will be "adding a lot of UIs to accommodate Android devices of all shapes and sizes," according to tech site Ars Technica, reporting from Google's I/O event in San Francisco.
In spite of that, the core look and feel will resemble Android's 3.0 Honeycomb, now found on a handful of Android tablets including the Motorola Xoom and Asus EeePad Transformer. According to Cnet, Ice Cream Sandwich "will include all of Honeycomb's user interface features, too, and includes the 'holographic' user interface, application launcher, multitasking and richer widgets."
Tablet update coming soon
Speaking of those Honeycomb tablets, they're due to get an interim update with two very welcome additions. I have complained for a while that the Honeycomb home screen is ugly, because the "widgets" that give it an advantage over the iPad are still sized to fit phones, not spacious 10-inch tablets. In the Android 3.1 release (for tablets only), widgets will be resizable.
Many Honeycomb tablets come with USB ports, and now we know why: The release will also allow for device support via USB, a clear benefit that the iPad does not share. Not only will people be able to plug in cameras to off-load images, but they'll be able to use keyboards, game controllers, microphones and other input and control devices. (Here's more on the Open Accessory program.)
There will also be provisions in the new software for interaction with a wide range of accessories, from exercise machines to robots.
But will it update?
Ambitious as the path to Ice Cream Sandwich is, that's something that Google can handle mostly in-house. The other half of this fragmentation problem is that devices out there don't get updates to the new OS — even when they're technically compatible. To fix this problem, Google is enlisting the help of its partners, the biggest companies in the wireless world. "New devices from participating partners will receive the latest Android platform upgrades for 18 months after the device is first released, as long as the hardware allows."
Neither of these big moves is bound to solve the fragmentation for the 100 million or so active Android devices currently in the world, but it's a sign that Google cares about the future of its platform, and about making it a great OS for really cool software.
More of today's Google news on msnbc.com:
And fun with Android tablets, from our own Gadgetbox: