Google disclosed numerous innovations in Android 4.0, also called Ice Cream Sandwich, during a Webcast demonstration from Hong Kong on Wednesday using the coming Samsung Galaxy Nexus smartphone.
The changes in Android 4.0 range from a new typeface called Roboto to software-only buttons for functions such as "home" and "return" -- a first for Android.
But four new capabilities in Android 4.0 demonstrate what Andy Rubin, Google's senior vice president of mobile, said is "the innovative work our team is doing" amidst a fast-changing smartphone market. All four bear further scrutiny by users once the Galaxy Nexus ships in November.
The new features are: Face Unlock facial recognition, which failed in the Google demo; Android Beam, which uses near-field communication technology; and data monitoring, a potentially powerful user setting. The fourth innovation, which might seem trivial at first but could prove very popular, allows users to speed up the playback of long-winded voice mails.
Whether the Ice Cream Sandwich upgrade or the Galaxy Nexus phone draws the most attention in coming weeks remains to be seen. The phone hardware itself has already been put in the category of a "superphone," due to its large 4.65-in. display and 1280 x 720 HD resolution using Super Amoled technology.
The Galaxy Nexus is also powered by a 1.2 GHz dual-core processor. The phone is expected to launch in the U.S. in November on Verizon Wireless's 4G LTE network. Verizon hasn't confirmed pricing or availability, however.
The phone's hardware features are going to be relatively easy for users to evaluate, while Ice Cream Sandwich and its new features are still more of a mystery.
Face Unlock: Will it work?
Face Unlock was unsuccessfully demonstrated by Matias Duarte, senior director of Android user experience at Google. He introduced the facial recognition feature as a means of unlocking the Galaxy Nexus or future Android 4.0 phones without needing to type in a PIN.
"Face Unlock uses state of the art facial recognition," he said. "Ice Cream Sandwich literally knows our face."
Not this time, however, as Duarte's face wasn't recognized by the demo Galaxy Nexus phone. A quick retry seemed to work, but Duarte didn't seem to notice it had, and remarked: "My make-up must be stronger than expected."
Nearly all of Google's 30-minute presentation of Ice Cream Sandwich features on the Galaxy Nexus worked flawlessly, but Duarte didn't explain what the backup for such a facial recognition failure would be for users. Google officials assured Computerworld on Wednesday that if Face Unlock fails to recognize you there is a backup way to unlock the phone through either a PIN or a pattern that the user has created, as with other Android devices.
Android Beam and NFC
Because Ice Cream Sandwich works with near-field communication wireless technology, it will presumably allow use of the Google Wallet app that runs on Samsung's Nexus S 4G sold by Sprint.
But Google officials didn't mention Google Wallet during the presentation, and instead focused on using the NFC chip and software to support what Google calls the Android Beam app.
"Android Beam makes it easy to share any content ... by touching phones together," said Hugo Barra, Google's product management director for Android.
In a series of demonstrations, Barra showed how touching two Galaxy Nexus phones together, back-to-back, would allow wireless transfer of an article from a Web site, a Google map of a specific location, or a YouTube video. He showed how one person playing the game Minecraft on a Galaxy Nexus could tap another Galaxy Nexus, leading the second user immediately to the Minecraft app in Android Market where he could read about it or quickly purchase and download it.
Barra said the potential for Android Beam is great for connecting "any proximity-based things" such as group chats and more. "We're looking forward to see what [Android] developers do with it," he said.
Monitoring data usage
Ice Cream Sandwich includes a new data usage setting that Google didn't give a special name. Barra showed how a user can set the phone to give the user a warning when data usage has crossed a certain threshold. The setting even allows users to specify a limit to cut off all mobile data, while leaving the voice-calling capability of the phone intact.
The data usage setting comes in graphical form, so a user can track trends for a month or a given period. It also provides predictions of where data usage will go based on prior usage.
In one demonstration, Barra showed how a slice of a data set in a graph comes with a list of specific apps that have used the data in that slice in time. With that knowledge, a user could decide to stop using a heavy-use app or just stop the wireless capability connected to the app. "With that background data, I only use the mobile network when I want it," Barra said.
The data usage setting is likely a response to the growing number of carriers setting monthly data limits, such as AT&T and Verizon Wireless. Both carriers have set up online tools to help customers monitor their data usage with the ability to receive warning notices in a given month as data limits are approached.
But Ice Cream Sandwich offers a tool that is more granular that what the carriers offer, down to a specific app's data impact over a specific period of time.
Speeding up annoying voice mails
Ice Cream Sandwich comes with a number of ways to use a person's voice to initiate calls, direct searches and emails. But Google also has conceived a simple way to deal with a flood of incoming voicemails by speeding up playback of the voicemails that can clutter an inbox.
Barra called it a solution for those "long-winded voice mails. " To make it work, the user drags a finger on a speed meter that appears during voicemail playback.
Speeding up voicemail playback might not be Google's biggest innovation in Ice Cream Sandwich, but it could qualify as the kind of minor, user-centric feature that Google says it cares about in the latest Android release.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is [email protected]