Gingerbread is the nickname for the next release of the Android operating system. Rumors have been flying all around on whether our Android smartphones can move into the Gingerbread house in time for Christmas. Supposedly the software development kit (SDK) will be released within days.
Here's what we know, what we're speculating on, and what we would love to see in the newest incarnation of Android.
In da House (Definite)
The newest software release will be based on Linux kernel 2.6.35.
Google has come up with a new format for web-based media files. Called WebM, it uses the V8 video codec and Vorbis audio codec. So say goodbye to H.264 video compression. Since Google plans to support WebM on YouTube or its upcoming Music store (see below), it is building that capability into Gingerbread. Plus that many WebM-compatible devices would further push WebM adoption from those outside the Google ecosphere.
Copy and Paste Goodness
Google doesn't have many specifics on how they plan to improve copy and paste, but they have been promising something much better than what Android does now. Since there is talk that the whole user interface will be much improved (nicer look and easier to use), this is a great place to start. The sheer number of complaints outstanding about copy and paste (the issue was starred by 663 people) suggests the developers have been working on it. Let's hope they played with an iPhone 4 and said, "We can do better than that!"
Social Networking, Gaming and Browser Improvements
Andy Rubin gave an extensive interview to PC Magazine, and had a few things to say about the new OS release. He specifically mentioned there would be more forms of communication, and called out social networking in particular.
He explained that gaming on a mobile device is different than on a console, because battery life is always an issue. Mobile gaming is more a matter of filling in time until the next thing you have to do. Games are not dedicated events, but time-fillers. There has been some discussion of 3-D games having more enhanced support as well.
Rubin feels the Android browser "is probably one of the best performing browsers on a mobile phone." Gingerbread should add functionality to "improve the user experience." In particular, Flash will continue to be optimized to speed up web browsing.
So, improvements in those areas, but not a lot of specifics.
On the Table, but No Guarantees (Maybe)
So you're building the Gingerbread House of your dreams, and you have a bag with 100 gumdrops but there's only room for 60. Similarly, the items below are things we believe could be in Gingerbread, but any one of them could find itself left in the bag until next release.
In that PC Magazine interview mentioned above, Rubin noted that video chat was already enabled for Google Talk on the desktop. "Whether that can be repurposed and made appropriate for sipping bandwidth for mobile, it's an exercise that's underway," he added. If it's underway, perhaps we'll be seeing it this year rather than next.
When the HTC Evo 4G was released, the existing SDK didn't support its front-facing camera. Sprint had to work with Qik to get a working video call app. Fring and other apps are also supporting video chat, but many users are waiting for Google to fully equip its Talk app. More front-facing camera devices are on the way, including the upcoming Tegra 2 Motorola smartphone, which will be the first Gingerbread smartphone, period.
Google isn't playing nice with Apple anymore, and has set its sights on the iTunes store. Google's I/O conference showcased how Google Music would work. Instead of having to sync music between your PC and your phone, you'd simply buy a song from the Android music store and it would automatically be delivered to your phone over the air. And instead of having a separate music and apps store, as Apple does, the Android Market would have a music area.
A story in Billboard magazine suggests Google would offer a "digital locker," where you could store all your songs online for $25 a year. It could work the same way as the music store; scan your PC for all your music and upload them to the cloud. Google also plans to incorporate social music sharing and the ability to hear a new song once without buying it. There are many issues with music licensing, which may be one reason some of these features won't make it into Gingerbread but be put on hold for a later release.
Part of the store's features (or maybe as part of Gingerbread itself) will be media streaming. That clearly applies to music but could also mean video streaming. That leads to talk of Google TV, and while I haven't heard much about it being integrated into mobile devices, it's certainly something to expect at some point.
One of Android's relativeness weaknesses compared to Apple's iOS has been the difficulty of syncing media content between the desktop and the phone. Whether or not the Music Store is part of the Android Market, it appears Google will be improving how users enjoy music on their smartphones.
Improved User Interface
The Nexus One was the phone if you wanted stock Android, but most phone manufacturers built a user interface on top of it. Not only did it make their phones more distinctive, but they hoped to add value to Android's rather unpolished, and not the easiest to use UI. But this led to complaints of Android fragmentation, as each seperate UI made the Android experience more and more different. Furthermore, some manufacturers' UIs didn't play nicely with expected features, which led to OS update delays.
That's why the Android development team is "laser focused" on improving Gingerbread's UI. If they provide a sleek, well-designed, and pleasurable user interface, manufacturers would have less need to spend time adding on their own contributions. The fact that Google hired Palm's Senior Director of Human Interface and User Experience (now that's a mouthful of a title) tells us that Google is serious about providing a better UI. Matias Duarte was hired in May and is now Android's User Experience Director. Their goal is to come up with a UI that's better than the iPhone's. Actually, one person who got an early peek thinks the UI is similar to the 3D gallery app on the Nexus One.
Google acquired BumpTop in April. Have a look at what BumpTop was doing with their "physics-based desktop interface." Instead of having the usual 2-D icon view, BumpTop provides a way to gather documents as piles or overlapping clutter, and drag them around or throw them aside, as you would with real piles of paper on your desk. The way the papers move like physical items is fascinating. I'd love to see a UI with some of those responses.
Tablets vs Phones
The rumors had said that Gingerbread was the OS optimized for tablets. Once Honeycomb entered the mix, it was difficult to figure out which release was getting what. Android blogs couldn't even agree on which nickname got which revision number. Was Gingerbread Android OS 3.0? 2.5? 2.3? Was Honeycomb going to be OS 3.0, or 3.1, or 3.2? Today I saw it called 3.5, and this by a Forbes blogger.
Regardless of the numbers, one of these releases is going to be very tablet-friendly. Froyo isn't quite there with making the Samsung Galaxy S look as slick as an iPad. Gingerbread (or maybe Honeycomb) is going to fix that. Remember, LG pulled its Optimus tablet because it wasn't satisfied with the performance it displayed running 2.2. Google admitted that "Froyo is not optimized for tablets," and said wait for Gingerbread. And part of the issue was whether Android Market would be able to discern which apps could run on tablets or not. That's part of why Android Market isn't on tablets being released now.
Support for the 1280 x 760 WXGA resolution on screens four inches and larger is another supposed Gingerbread feature, and clearly tablet-friendly.
Less Text, More Talk
Gingerbread will move your phone away from email and web browsing, more to sending and receiving all kinds of media. Voice commands and actions will be greatly expanded. You'll be able to broadcast using your camera and audio, as well as play more incoming video. Think social, interactive, and digital media. Your phone will not be used the way you use it today, because it has a future as a media hub.
WebP Image File Support
Like WebM, WebP is another new format designed by Google. It's used to lossily compress color image files, and is based on the video compression algorithm used in V8. V8 is in turn part of the WebM format (see above). And like WebM, WebP's rationale is faster web performance. Google estimates 65% of web traffic consists of images and photos, hence the WebP format. This means WebP competes with the JPEG standard.
Browser Hardware Acceleration
The emphasis on any new OS is often how fast it is. Apps can be sped up by more efficient coding, or by tweaking how the firmware connects with the hardware. Supposedly the stock Gingerbread browser is going to have hardware acceleration under the hood. Why not, Opera mini will have it, too.
Admiring the Frosting (Want)
Some of these items are not just wants, but glimmers of possibility. You can look at a creation by a master baker and realize you can manage using Necco wafers for roofing tile, no matter what else you end up building. Similarly, some of these requests aren't completely blue-sky dreaming.
Revamp Android Market
One of the reasons Google's Android Market has competition is that it isn't that easy to navigate. Unless an app is very widely used, it's hard to be noticed there. Developers are limited in what they can share with users and customers. App descriptions are limited (to 325 characters) and only two screenshots are allowed. They can link to their own developer website, but many customers aren't going to bother following the link.
And what's with the weak search ability in Google's own software? Fat-finger an app name and Google Market has never heard of it. That would be funny if it weren't such a pain to find the apps we want. Clearly the Market needs strengthening, both to let developers better inform, and to support customers in finding what they want.
There's also discussion that the new Android Market will have a separate area for gaming, which includes the new 3-D games I mentioned above as a possibility.
Supposedly Gingerbread may be bringing a more web-based Market. AppBrain's already doing a fine job of this, so if that's what's coming, it better offer more than what AppBrain already does. And integrating Google Music, Google TV, and e-books into the Market, after fixing that crippled search bar and showing more information about the apps, would really make the Market marvelous.
Google Voice over VoIP
Google Talk on your desktop now allows you to make VoIP calls, thanks to the tech from an acquisition called Gizmo5. Supposedly Google made the buy so their work could be integrated into Google Voice. While free VoIP via Google Voice would be beyond awesome, I have a feeling some large carriers may not be thrilled with sowing the seeds of their own destruction. Andy Rubin agrees, explaining that:
Today what Google Voice is, it's a front end for your existing phone number, and it's also an optimized voicemail system … whether we actually become a voice service provider, that's probably a question for the Google Voice team, but also I'd have to think carefully about what that means for the wireless operators, who are our partners. You wouldn't expect us to be a voice service provider for wireless.
Non-OS Dependent Features
The new GMail release is not dependent on the Android operating system any longer. Once you have Froyo on your device, you don't need to get new GMail releases with your over-the-air OS upgrade. Remember the rumor back in March that Google was moving toward making their features and components independent of OS version? Google Maps was already available in the Android Market to most comers. This plan was supposed to begin with Froyo and continue with the release of Gingerbread. Apps, the keyboard, even the UI… available from the Market. How about dumping your phone's MotoBlur or Sense and installing stock Android in its place?
And if so many aspects of the Android feature set are now easily customizable, where you pick and choose them from the Market, how about if developers offer related packages of apps, user interface, wallpaper, ringtones, and the like for a quick and easy, well-designed experience? Love HTC Sense but prefer the features of a Motorola's DROID Pro? This way you could have both.
And… Ta-Da! (Conclusion)
There's a lot we still don't know about Gingerbread. If the rumors are true about the SDK being released next week, we're about to to find out more. Google's been able to keep the leaks plugged, so unless they permit another partner to dangle a few hints, we may not know much more until we see it running on some devices.
And with Honeycomb forecasted to arrive not much later than Gingerbread, it's going to be easy for features to slip to the next release. And the next after that. Ice Cream is coming in mid-2011. We think.
Please share your ideas about what you think is coming, or what you'd love to see that isn't mentioned.
Source: I've linked to dozens of sources, but want to acknowledge Alberto Vildosola of DroidDog for his Gingerbread article.