Google I/O, San Francisco -- Google has moved the bar forward with its late-June announcement of the 10th version of Android, formally known as Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean." Scheduled to be generally released mid-July, a prerelease version of Jelly Bean was installed on new gizmos given to 6,000 attendees of the company's huge Google I/O developer conference. The crowd went wild.
If you wonder why some platforms attract fervent developers, "free hardware" is one obvious reason. Microsoft did the same thing in 2011 at its huge Build conference, giving thousands of attendees free tablet computers running an alpha of Windows 8. There's nothing like having free toys -- as well as access to the platform -- to encourage developers to begin learning a new operating system. On the other hand, Apple doesn't give away anything. So clearly free hardware is only one part of the equation. But I digress.
From a developer perspective, here are three reasons why Jelly Bean is a significant upgrade over Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0.x) and Honeycomb (Android 3.x) -- more significant than the "dot-one" number would imply.
• Project Butter. An Android touch screen is often out of sync -- literally -- with screen refreshes. When the user touches a screen element or does a gesture, what the user sees on the display may not be what the phone/tablet is reacting to. Thus, it doesn't act as expected. Project Butter (as in "making the user experience as smooth as butter") locks display refreshes into sync with the touchscreen. It also adds triple buffering, so as to make it less likely that momentary heavy loads on the processor will affect the UX.
• Offline maps. This new feature will be very significant for applications that want to lean on map data and APIs even without data connections (think on an airplane, or a WiFi tablet outside the home/office). It will also help developers who want to reduce an app's battery consumption and cellular data footprint. The question is: How can we tap into this via APIs? So far, we don't know.
• Better notifications. The on-screen notification system in previous versions of Android were weak. The Android 4.1 Jelly Bean implementation looks much improved -- especially in that you can program a lot more information to appear in a notification, and allow the user to take some actions without switching to your app.
Because Android devices often can't be upgraded to the next major version, one mystery coming out of I/O is which Honeycomb and Ice Cream Sandwich handsets and tablets will be user-upgradable to Jelly Bean. Let's hope this gets sorted out soon.