Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) has pulled the wraps off its latest Android version, the long-awaited Gingerbread (Android version 2.3). The last time this happened, Android gained a plethora of user-friendly new features and a significant speed boost, raising much excitement around the platform. Gingerbread had been rumored to make Android-based tablet computers instantly competitive with the best Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) can produce, and one would almost expect a choir of angels to herald this dessert's sweet arrival.

Alas, this particular dish seems a bit underdone. Feel free to stick with Froyo (2.2) if you have it, or wait for next year's Honeycomb (3.0) if you want something groundbreaking. This one's mostly a bug-fixer.

Swing and a miss
It looks like much of the early buzz around Gingerbread was mere speculation. Android architect Andy Rubin had a golden chance to display the new software's prowess on a tablet at the Dive Into Mobile conference on Monday. Instead, Android Andy pulled out an early prototype of a Honeycomb tablet. Although it's still in  the early stages of development, that version already seems destined to become the tablet-powering salve Android fans wanted Gingerbread to be.

Google claims that "Gingerbread is the fastest version of Android yet," but that kind of claim is usually followed by hard numbers about speedy number-crunching. Here, it's more a matter of making the user interface faster to learn and to use. The new onscreen keyboard looks nice (but not as good as Swype) and there's better copy-and-paste support now (ripped directly from Apple's playbook).

It's a nice enough improvement, but it's more incremental than revolutionary. Android aficionados should be reminded of how Donut (1.6) improved in little ways over the Cupcake (1.5), rather than the huge usability leaps brought about in previous updates, like when the Droid introduced Android 2.0. In outsider terms, it's like dusting some sprinkles on an ice cream sundae, rather than getting all-new flavors of ice cream (or even adding a banana).

The real deal
Given the relatively unexciting nature of Gingerbread, the big news out of the Android camp on Monday was the Nexus S smartphone from Google and Samsung Electronics.

The sequel to the Nexus One is built to showcase what Android can do. Sure, it incorporates all the new software features of Gingerbread. But more importantly, it takes advantage of fresh hardware support:

  • Near field communications (NFC, not to be confused with a popular football conference) makes its first Android appearance, powered by chips from NXP Semiconductors (Nasdaq: NXPI). This is a future-proofing feature; while there are few uses for NFC today, the technology could eventually replace credit cards, or enable new forms of advertising and entertainment in the near future. Nokia (NYSE: NOK) is betting big on NFC, along with most of our major network operators. Google could benefit significantly if NFC lives up to the hype, so its early support is almost a foregone conclusion.
  • Early reviews show a high-quality screen and great battery life, two good cameras to enable two-way video calls, and voice call quality that blows the iPhone out of the water. It's enough to make the curmudgeons of TechCrunch ditch their iPhones for everyday use, even.
  • The conclusion from TechCrunch speaks volumes: "The bottom line is this. If you are an iPhone user, this isn’t going to make you switch. If you’re an Android user you will want this phone more than any other. If you’re currently neither, we recommend that you go with the Nexus S. It is better than the iPhone in most ways." How's that for an evenhanded yet ringing endorsement?

Like the Nexus One, the Nexus S comes unlocked, and it can be used on GSM networks worldwide with the flip of a SIM card. Unlike that first effort, Google won't try to sell this thing direct to consumers; instead, it passes that responsibility to Best Buy (NYSE: BBY). It's $529 with no strings attached, or $200 with a two-year T-Mobile contract, which is on par with (or actually a bit cheaper than) the somewhat less capable Motorola (NYSE: MOT) Droid X or Samsung's own Galaxy S series.

Just desserts
So the big Android news wasn't so much about the software update, which is less exciting than expected, but about a new phone. Being semi-tethered by discounted pricing to T-Mobile's fourth-largest network, instead of one of the Big Two, means that the Nexus S won't be a massive hit on its own. Still, it's a harbinger of things to come.

Google won't kill the iPhone with Androids, but it's clearly gunning for the pole position in the smartphone market -- thus influencing how people access ad-laden online content on the go. That's the master plan, and the Nexus S will move Google closer to that goal.

Should Google have pushed its tablet interface into Gingerbread, rather than waiting for the next version -- or was this the right choice? Discuss in the comments below.