Aug 10 AT 10:52 AM Taylor Wimberly 47 Comments

The next version of Android, codenamed Ice Cream Sandwich, is the company’s “most ambitious release to date,” according to Google’s Mike Cleron. We know that the Android team is “targeting a Q4 launch”, but there is little else we have learned about this major update to Google’s mobile OS. Here at Android and Me we love to speculate, so the team rounded up all the Ice Cream Sandwich rumors and decided to investigate them. Read on to see what exciting features might accompany the next version of Android.

1. One operating system to rule them all

“If I had to pick one word to describe Android’s phenomenal growth over the past year, the word would be choice,” said Mike Cleron at Google I/O in May. He went on to describe all the devices of every size and shape that were powered by Android including smartphones, tablets, TVs, and more.  “Our top priority for Ice Cream Sandwich will be to give app developers the tools they need to deliver great experiences on all of these devices.”

The biggest problem that Android developers currently face is fragmentation. Smartphones, tablets, and TVs each run their own version of Android. Google has tried to educate developers on how to work with different screen sizes, but even they acknowledged the problem when they recently started allowing developers to upload multiple versions of their applications to target different devices.

How did Android find itself in this situation? “We took a shortcut,” said Andy Rubin in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek.

Last year Google was faced with a difficult problem. They wanted to release the tablet version of Android as soon as possible to compete with Apple’s iPad, so they split their development team into two groups. One team worked on the Gingerbread update for smartphones and another went to work on Honeycomb for tablets.

“To make our schedule to ship the tablet, we made some design tradeoffs,” said Andy Rubin. “We didn’t want to think about what it would take for the same software to run on phones. It would have required a lot of additional resources and extended our schedule beyond what we thought was reasonable.”

So Google went on to debut their latest phone OS (Gingerbread) on the Nexus S in December and they released their tablet OS (Honeycomb) on the Motorola Xoom in February. Since that time, the entire Android team has been hard at work trying to combine these two.

2. State of the art UI

The Holographic UI that debuted with Honeycomb.

We don’t know exactly what Ice Cream Sandwich will look like, but we know it will be an upgrade of the Holographic UI that we first saw on Honeycomb tablets. It was announced during Google I/O that “all of the good stuff” which debuted in Honeycomb would find its way to smartphones. This includes the Holographic UI, new launcher, new multitasking UI, richer widgets, and advanced applications.

Some have speculated that new Android smartphones might lose their capacitive buttons in favor of on-screen navigation buttons like Honeycomb tablets, but this has yet to be confirmed. Ice Cream Sandwich will come to some existing phones, so support for real buttons will have to be maintained.

3. Finally open sourced

If you are a fan of custom ROMs, then you will be happy to know that Google plans to release Ice Cream Sandwich to the Android Open Source Project. Google typically releases the source code to each version of Android a few months after it debuts on a new device, but they chose not to do this with Honeycomb. Andy Rubin said Google wanted to prevent developers from putting the software on phones “and creating a really bad user experience. We have no idea if it will even work on phones.”

Ice Cream Sandwich will be available for the development community to hack to their hearts’ content and I’m sure we will see CyanogenMod 8 a month after the source code is public.

4. Hello Android 4.0

Google doesn’t assign a version number to their Android releases until the last moment, but you can bet that Ice Cream Sandwich will eventually become Android 4.0. This is the “most ambitious release to date” so there is no way Google is going to call it Android 3.x. We also know that Apple will debut iOS 5 this fall, so Google will counter with the “4.0″ branding to tell everyone this is a significant upgrade over Android 3.x.

5. Linux 3.0 kernel

I’m not a Linux geek so I won’t even try to go into the details, but Ice Cream Sandwich will use the latest 3.0 kernel. Linus Torvalds announced the latest update on July 21st to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his announcement of Linux and that’s about all I know.

6. Music purchases in Android Market

The latest Android Market already has icons for their music store.

We have long been expecting Google to sell music in their Android Market, but it still hasn’t happened yet. It was recently discovered that the latest update to the Android Market included icons for their music store, so it already has the support when Google decides to flip the switch. This could occur before Ice Cream Sandwich is released, but I’m predicting that Google decides to roll this out as another selling point of Android 4.0.

7. More optimizations for multi-core processors in smartphones

Android 3.0 was the first version of the platform designed to run on either single or multi-core processor architectures. Android 2.x supports multi-core  processors, but it was not designed from the ground up to be fully optimized.

Honeycomb included a variety of changes in the Dalvik VM, Bionic library, and elsewhere that can benefit all applications, even those that are single-threaded. For example, with two active cores, a single-threaded application might still see a performance boost if the Dalvik garbage collector runs on the second core.

Rumors and evidence suggest that Google went with the dual-core OMAP4 (see video above) as the lead platform for Ice Cream Sandwich, so we can expect a significant boost in smartphone performance.

8. Up to 1.8x faster than Honeycomb?

Speaking of performance increases, one of our sources told us Ice Cream Sandwich is up to 1.8x faster than Honeycomb. They didn’t provide any other details, so we don’t know if this refers to browser, GPU, or overall system performance. For all we know, they could have been talking about performance gains from the latest hardware.

Whatever happens, it is pretty safe to assume that Ice Cream Sandwich will be the fastest version of Android we have ever seen.

9. Google TV and Chrome OS integration with smart docks

With the different Android code bases coming together, look for Google to take a page out of Motorola’s playbook and emulate their smart dock strategy. What I’m referring to is a dynamic user experience that changes on the fly depending on which device or smart dock that your phone is connected to. If you connect your phone to a TV, you might see Google TV-like features or a full-blown Chrome OS-type browser. We predicted this back in January and I believe it will happen sooner rather than later.

10. An official theme engine for OEMs

File this one under rumors, but we have also been told that Google is working on an official themeing engine with select OEMs (Sony was tossed around). Most of the popular alternative launchers that you can download in the Android Market (like my fav Go Launcher EX) already include support for themes, but Google has never offered this as a default feature.

This could be a result of the Android update alliance that was formed to smooth over the release process. A true theme engine could allow Google to update the core Android system and the OEM’s UI overlay would remain intact.

11. A true competitor to Apple’s Game Center

Apple announced their Game Center service back in 2010.

Android already has several social gaming networks like OpenFeint and Scoreloop, but it looks like Google is finally ready to dive in with their own official competitor to Apple’s Game Center.

Rumors of a Google Games service go back several years and it looks like Google+ will play an important role in the service. Code discovered in Google+ hints at Google Games and one of our sources said we should expect to see it with Ice Cream Sandwich.

12. Support for existing phones

At Google I/O I asked the Android team if Ice Cream Sandwich had any special hardware requirements that would prevent it from running on existing smartphones. They didn’t name specific handsets, but we were told that most phones which could run Android 2.3 would be able to handle the update. That doesn’t guarantee anything for current Android smartphone owners, but we expect Google’s own Nexus One and Nexus S will be some of the first devices upgraded to Android 4.0.

13. New camera tricks, virtual camera operator

Finally, we can say for certain that Ice Cream Sandwich will feature a ton of new developer APIs, including several cool camera tricks. Several of these were actually demoed at Google I/O and you can see them in the clip above (or watch the entire day 1 keynote if you wish).

Conclusion

As we get closer to the release of Android 4.0, more details will continue to leak out. Some people think this might happen as soon as October, but my gut tells me that might be pushed back to late November or December. We would love to see Ice Cream Sandwich (and the Nexus 3) released on the dot, but Google’s track record shows us that they are more often late than early. I would personally prefer that they take their time and get it right, instead of pushing out another half-baked release like Honeycomb.

What potential features of Android 4.0 are you looking forward to the most?

Taylor is the founder of Android and Me. He resides in Dallas and carries the Samsung Galaxy S 4 and HTC One as his daily devices. Ask him a question on Twitter or Google+ and he is likely to respond. | Ethics statement

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