LIVE: What’s New From Google’s Android: Web Store and More

Google seems to realize that most people can’t keep up with all the developments around its Android mobile-device operating software. So this morning, it’s inviting a whole lot of press to an event promising to provide “an in-depth look at Honeycomb, Android ecosystem news and hands-on demos.” I’ll be liveblogging the highlights starting at 10 a.m. Pacific. You can also watch it on YouTube.

Honeycomb is Google’s code-name for the next version of Android, which to date has been used mainly on smart phones. This new version is expected to provide new features for tablets, though as AllThingsD’s Ina Fried reports, it’s intended to work on all kinds of mobile devices, not just tablets. Still, for the time being, it’s clearly aimed at Apple’s iPad. Here’s how Google described it in a blog post in early January:

Honeycomb is the next version of the Android platform, designed from the ground up for devices with larger screen sizes, particularly tablets. We’ve spent a lot of time refining the user experience in Honeycomb, and we’ve developed a brand new, truly virtual and holographic user interface. Many of Android’s existing features will really shine on Honeycomb: refined multi-tasking, elegant notifications, access to over 100,000 apps on Android Market, home screen customization with a new 3D experience and redesigned widgets that are richer and more interactive. We’ve also made some powerful upgrades to the web browser, including tabbed browsing, form auto-fill, syncing with your Google Chrome bookmarks, and incognito mode for private browsing.

But a number of Android watchers assume Google has more in mind than rehashing what it has already hinted at, so they’re speculating that Google could announce a new version of the Android Market, Google’s app marketplace, or debut the long-rumored Google Music. We’ll find out in about an hour.

UPDATE: Essentially, the new version of Android helps Google catch up to Apple iPad capabilities, with a couple of improvements over iPad such as 3-D Google Maps. Plus, the new Android Market Web store should get developers, who have been complaining about problems getting exposure via the market, more jazzed about doing new applications. So new Android tablets are likely to be much more competitive than current ones, such as Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, which apparently has had lower sell-through than expected as well as higher returns. No Google Music beyond a small hint, but a lot of pretty developer-oriented features, such as 3-D capabilities, payment options, and the like. The earth isn’t shattering, but no doubt Android is likely to continue its momentum into a tablet market that’s likely to become a major computing category this year.

And we’re underway. Andy Rubin, head of Android, says they will show a demo of Motorola’s Xoom tablet and show off new features of Android Market. “With open source, you don’t really know what people are going to do with it,” he says. So Android is popping up in all kinds of places.

Rubin points out that the cloud is what makes all the services on a tablet seamless. (Which makes me wonder why the big deal about an OS, but I guess we’ll find out.)

Hugo Barra, Android product marketing manager, comes on to introduce Honeycomb. The basic idea, he says, is to introduce agile software development on tablets.

The overview of Honeycomb:

* We’ve revamped how you navigate. There’s a new button dedicated to visual previews of services.

* It’s a platform that meshes widgets with collections of data behind them. These widgets are reusable components developers can use to bubble up important info to the home screen. It’s really just about quick and easy access to important information.

* Revamped the notification system, like for emails. They contain more info now, like the photo of the person sending an email. Created templates to enable developers to create richer notifications. While music app is active in the background, for instance, if you get a notification for something else, you can pause it with a tap of a button. There’s also a quick-settings panel on WiFi, etc.

Now he goes over new application patterns that are part of the Honeycomb app format:

Examples: When you tap on an email message, the message list pane moves over to the left, allowing you to see more of the text of the emails on the right. You can also pick up and drag a message into a folder. Another change is the application bar at the top: When you select an email message, for instance, the bar changes to buttons specific to email

(Apologies, I’m barely following everything this guy’s throwing out–no doubt developers are much more familiar with all of this minutiae than I….)

There’s also a new animation framework. Much more smooth. Better 3-D graphics capabilities via something called RenderScript. He shows a 3D showcase of YouTube videos. Other 3-D apps that can be built on Honeycomb: For Google Maps, there’s 3-D rendering of locales–pretty slick-looking. Also a way to browse through CD albums in 3-D, like flipping through them physically. You can also view layers of a human body, to see the circulatory system or the skeleton or whatever

Now Thomas Williamson, CEO of  War Drum Studios. He’s going to show some 3D apps, like games. One is Monster Madness. Another is a medieval battle game. I think the point is that you can do games that look close to as slick on tablets and phones as on a desktop machine.

Now Hugo is going to talk about new media capabilities of Android. One is a new UI for a camera, with easy controls, and fast upload to YouTube. Also, the front-facing camera on the tablet he’s using for the demo allows for video chat. So he initiatives a video chat with someone with the user name Lady Killer–oops, he’s not online, it seems. So he chooses to talk to another friend instead.

Louis Gump, VP of mobile at CNN, shows a new app using Honeycomb: The app will launch for free shortly in the Android Market. CNN has decided that mobile is a core strategy (only now?). Looks pretty straightforward to me. There’s something called iReport, which allows people to upload their own videos of local happenings. Now you can do this on a tablet. (Honestly, I wonder how many people are going to do this kind of thing with a still rather bulky tablet vs. a phone.)

Back to Hugo for an overview: The platform is just half the story. The other half is how to get these apps into the hands of users. Chris Yerga, Android’s engineering director, will show new developments in Android Market. First, he announces the Android Market Web Store–a new way for users to get apps on their devices. So you can get apps through the browser, not just from a client app.

Looks like the usual thumbnail list of apps. Once you click on a particular app, the info is richer, with description, screenshots, and user reviews. You can click on the buy button, choose on which device to install the app, and pay for it with a click or two. As soon as the credit-card purchase goes through, it starts downloading automatically.

Another way of discovering applications: recommendations from friends; via email, you can click on a button and get taken directly to the app in the Android Market. To share one with your friends, you can also tweet the app. And of course there’s also a search function to find apps. Finally, there’s a “My Market Account” where you can see what apps you’ve bought and installed and what devices they’re installed on. The new Android Market is now live.

Final thing: Developers want additional ways to monetize apps on the Market. So in-app purchases are coming for items like virtual goods and songs. Working with a couple of developers initially to test it. One of them is Bart Decrem, GM of Disney Mobile (he joined when Disney bought his company, Tapulous, last year). He’s bringing three key apps to Android platform. One is Radio Disney in a couple of weeks–can stream music to Android device and send out shout-outs and song requests. Another coming this spring is Jelly Car. Third is Tap Tap Revenge, their most successful franchise with 50 million downloads and 25 million song sales (thanks to iPhone so far).

Finally Lady Killer–that would be rapper Cee-Lo Green–calls. OK, well, so he does.

And that’s it except for the demos.

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