With all the emphasis on hardware at the Google I/O keynote on Wednesday, it was easy to overlook the software powering the Nexus devices on display: Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean," the successor to the current "Ice Cream Sandwich" operating system.
The biggest new feature has to do with the way handles voice commands. You can now ask specific questions of Google, and it'll try to display the answer on a grey-bordered "Card," showing search results, maps, weather forecasts and the like depending on what question you asked. In some ways it's like Apple's Siri virtual assistant, except that the voice recognition takes place offline (the software itself can interpret queries, rather than streaming them up to Google's servers for analysis).
It works like this: Google Calendar knows you have an appointment coming up in an hour, so your phone checks your location against current traffic to figures out how long it'll take you to get there. Then it sends you a reminder at the time you'll need to leave to make it on time. Or, as you walk down the street, it'll automatically show you ratings for the restaurants you pass (as well as letting you know what dish each place is known for). Or, if you've got a flight scheduled, it'll tell you what terminal to leave from and whether your flight is delayed.
Google Now certainly has the potential to be intrusive (and you can, of course, opt out of the service), but it could also be hugely useful for those who need to juggle a busy schedule.
In spite of all the heavy lifting the software will be doing, Jelly Bean's interface will feel responsive and fluid. Thanks to the efforts of Google's "Project Butter" team (y'know, because they want the UI to feel buttery-smooth), Jelly Bean will sense the location and direction of your finger and predict, a few milliseconds early, what you're asking the interface to do. Android has long been dogged by complaints of sluggishness, but this version should offer super-zippy scrolling and zooming.
Jelly Bean also improves Android notifications, offering more information at a glance (you can get pictures and lists, for example, as well as text) and the ability to take actions directly from a notification -- like calling someone back directly from a "missed call" message. You'll even be able to mute notifications from intrusive apps.
Google promised that Jelly Bean will be available as an over-the-air download to unlocked Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S phones, as well as Motorola Xoom tablets, by mid-July. But for everyone else (including owners of carrier-branded versions of those devices) the update could take quite a bit longer -- most carriers are notoriously slow to offer Android updates. Considering that the previous version of Android, Ice Cream Sandwich, has been out for more than seven months and is installed on just seven percent of devices, most users shouldn't hold their breath for a speedy Jelly Bean upgrade.
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