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Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) still hasn't officially released the Honeycomb version of Android -- no launch party, no free tablets to prominent bloggers, no partner products about to hit store shelves.
What we do have, however, is lots of information about Honeycomb, including its app developer tools.
This is a very different animal from the versions that have gone before, such as Froyo or Gingerbread. Right up front in the platform-highlights rundown, Google tells us that Honeycomb "is specifically optimized for devices with larger screen sizes, particularly tablets."
The new interface attempts to make use of more screen space by presenting icons and screens in a "vibrant, 3D experience." Apps written specifically for Honeycomb will enjoy the richest set of interactive improvements, but even apps designed for older Android devices such as existing smartphones will see improvements here and there.
In a smartphone paradigm, which is what Android has been until now, everything you do is expected to fill the entire screen with a single task. Honeycomb is different and closer to the multi-window user experience you know from Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT ) Windows and other desktop environments. To be sure, many apps will probably still use up the whole screen out of old habit or a desire to grab every ounce of your attention, but it's no longer a requirement.
There are numerous other changes from a user's perspective, including refreshed graphics for everything and a default Web browser that looks and feels more like the desktop version of Chrome. But the biggest changes are happening under the hood.
The big news isn't flashy
Remember how Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX ) complained that a streaming video application for Android is difficult to do because of a lack of a consistent DRM framework from one device to the next? Honeycomb takes steps toward fixing that problem by adding an extensible DRM framework.
It's still not a monolithic DRM solution on par with Microsoft's PlaysForSure or Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) FairPlay, but the aim is to provide a single programming interface to a variety of underlying DRM mechanisms. Is that enough to make a blanket Netflix-streaming application possible for all Honeycomb tablets? I don't know, but here's hoping. Netflix video has served Apple's marketing well, and Android would surely do better in the marketplace with video-laden killer apps like that.
Android's chip partners will also love this new version, because it will make them look good. Dual-core processors (or more) from NVIDIA (Nasdaq: NVDA ) , Texas Instruments (NYSE: TXN ) , and Marvell Technology Group (Nasdaq: MRVL ) will take advantage of changes in the Dalvik virtual machine to suck more performance out of high-powered chips. Previous Android versions will run on multi-core chips but are optimized to work best in a single-processor environment.
Moreover, Honeycomb supports hardware acceleration of both 2-D and 3-D graphics. That's another way to make better use of the available, specialized hardware in modern phones. It will also be easier to design and program 3-D scenes into Android apps, thanks to a new scripting engine known as Renderscript. It's safe to say that the graphics of Honeycomb tablets will be a major selling point.
This is the long-awaited Android update that makes the platform a contender in the tablet arena. If only all this goodness had been available six months ago, the iPad might have some real competition by now.
As it stands, Honeycomb is an impressive piece of work with much to like for both developers and users. But it has yet to hit the street, and Apple is probably busy right now putting the finishing touches on the iPad 2. As awesome as the first Honeycomb tablets might be, they are being fired at a moving target.
With the developer tools readily available, Google must be close to holding that missing launch party, and then there's the next Apple shindig as mentioned above. In a matter of weeks, our view of the tablet market will be much clearer, with lots of news to ponder from both sides of the conflict.
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