Google has announced Jelly Bean, the next version of the Android operating system, at its I/O conference in San Francisco. The software, also known as Android 4.1, is faster and introduces a number of useful new functions: offline voice, more powerful notifications, and a predictive search that gives you answers before you ask.
After a short preamble in which Google's Hugo Barra announced that the company was activating a million devices a day, they began going over the major features being added to the OS. Here they are in convenient bullet form:
- "Project Butter" is the internal name for the effort to make Android more responsive. Laggy controls and delay in apps launching have been common complaints. The team did all kinds of optimizations and made a new tool that ramps up the CPU when it detects you're doing something on-screen. Using a high-speed camera, they recorded the difference between the old and new systems, and it's striking.
- The camera has a new interface, and lets you get over to your latest shots super-easily. And deleting photos is quick — you just slide them up and off the screen. Looks really easy to do.
- The homescreen is more elastic, allowing for nice resizable widgets that automatically reorganize the screen around them. A custom home screen is something Android and Windows Phone have been pushing hard and which iOS conspicuously lacks.
- NFC, the short-range wireless Google has been hyping (and which is rumored to be on the next iPhone as well), can now be used to share media or to sync up accessories quickly and easily.
- Notifications have become very rich: icons, contact photos, more content, and some now actually can expand to show more info. If you miss a call, you can call back or send a text right from the notification, or if a new song comes on, you can favorite or skip it.
- Voice recognition has been moved offline, which is a very significant development. With or without a connection, you can dictate your emails or search terms. Right now it's only available in English, but they're rolling out more languages soon.
- A new Siri-like voice search gives rich search results quickly, with map snippets, media, and Knowledge graph data. "Show me pictures of pygmy marmosets," for example:
- Google Now, a predictive search engine, that (if you let it, they were careful to point out) uses your search history and location to determine what you might search for, and provides that preemptively. Drive to work every day around 8:30? Google automatically gives you traffic and route data. Take the train? It pre-loads train arrival times and other stuff. Getting on a plane? If you've searched for that flight, it'll track the flight in real time and advise you of gate changes and so on.
- It'll also tell you about games and teams you're watching. On a slightly creepy note, the presenter explained: "You don't need to set up your favorite teams. You've already done that." By searching, naturally.
- Maps has gotten a medium-size update, with a cool new "Compass mode" that lets you navigate street view by looking around with your phone in hand. And you can now download maps for offline use by city and neighborhood instead of just in square chunks.
- A few more minor features: App updates are more efficient, only delivering the part that needs updating. The OS is now more friendly to blind users, who can use voice and braille to navigate. Media format input and output has been improved (multichannel audio, better codec detection).
Overall it's quite a significant update, and should be arriving to the Nexus series of phones starting in mid-July. When will other phones get it? Hard to say, but Google noted that they've started a new program with hardware manufacturers that should let them make the latest version of Android available more quickly on their devices. So it may not be for a little while yet, especially considering how many devices have yet to upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich, the last version. Hopefully the wait will be shorter than it has been before.
You can see a few of the features in action in this video showing off the new Nexus 7 tablet.
More information and further discussion of the new features can be found at Google's Jelly Bean key features page.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website is coldewey.cc.