File Under: Events, operating systems

Android’s Debut Steals the Show at Google IO

GoogleIOGoogle wanted to talk about software engineering on the open web at its developer event on Wednesday, but the demo of its Android operating system for next-generation mobile phones ended up drawing the most attention.

The company used the keynote address at the Google I/O developer conference to introduce the user interface and several key features of its upcoming Android mobile operating system for smart phones. The attendees, numbering over 3,000, were blown away by the slick interface which, even in its early stages, looks robust and feature-rich enough to challenge the iPhone.

One feature in particular — a compass and accelerometer-powered interface for Google Maps Street View that rotates the map on the phone’s display as you spin around — drew a big round of applause from the crowd. Other features, like the powerful web browser and iPhone-like customizable desktops were greeted with gasps of pleasure.

Google engineering director Steve Horowitz performed the demo on an unspecified mobile phone prototype with a touch screen (details below) that included a number of previously unannounced features. The project will eventually be released under an open-source license and development is ongoing, but here’s what’s ready now:

* The wow moment of the show: A fast-loading Google Maps application (the demo phone was a 3G device) with a Street View component. It uses the phone’s built-in compass and accelerometer to change the viewing angle — Hold it up and turn your body, and the view of the street on the phone’s display updates as the direction you’re facing changes. “The device will actually track my movements,” said Horowitz as he spun around, “and I don’t even have to lift a finger.”

* Minor wow moment: Android’s customizable gesture unlock mechanism, which lets users program their own touch-sensitive key pattern. Horowitz traced a big letter “G,” lighting up nodes on the phone’s screen with his finger, to unlock it.

* Lots of touch and drag elements: The status bar at the top of the screen shows you incoming e-mails, text messages and missed calls. Just grab the bar with your index finger and drag it down. Create bookmarks and shortcuts that you can drag around on a tiny desktop. There are multiple desktops that mirror iPhone desktops. There are also integrated widgets, such as an analog clock.

* Horowitz showed a full version of PacMan on the device. The phone vibrates when the player is killed in the game.

* Android uses a fully capable Webkit-based browser. The browser lets you navigate around a page by dragging it with your finger. When you double-tap on a web page, you zoom out and get a magnifying loupe under your finger. Not as revolutionary or elegant as Apple’s “pinch” but still impressive.

After the demo, Andy Rubin from the Android team told Wired.com that the smart phone software will be released in the second half of 2008. The software is being developed with Google’s Open Handset Alliance partners, and once those partners get a chance to fully develop their components, the Android code will be released under an Apache open-source license.

Specs for the Android phone used in the demo (Rubin wouldn’t say who the manufacturer was, specifically):

* UMTS handset

* Qualcomm processor “running at 381,” according to Rubin

* 128 MB RAM

* 256 flash memory

* OpenGL hardware acceleration was turned on for the demo, but it’s not required to use the animation-rich UI

While the Android demo definitely stole the show, the rest of the 90-minute keynote was dedicated to Google’s key developer products. Google vice president of engineering Vic Gundotra hosted the keynote. As expected, Google made some announcements relating to its App Engine, Google Web Toolkit, and Open Social products:

* The company has dropped “Google” from “Google Gears” — it’s just Gears now.

* Google tech lead Kevin Gibbs announced the opening of Google App Engine to everyone, a proposed pricing plan, Memcache and Image Manipulation APIs. See our full coverage of this announcement in our previous post.

* Tom Stocky from the App Engine team gave some insight into the platform’s choice of programming languages: Python is the first language supported for Google App Engine, but support for more languages will be announced later. Stocky has no specific info to release just yet. App Engine’s infrastructure is code-agnostic, so it can support other languages easily.

* MySpace senior vice president of engineering Allen Hurff announced Google Gears integration with MySpace’s messaging system. Gears enables offline reading, searching and sorting of messages.

* Google’s engineering manager Bruce Johnson, introduced Google Web Toolkit version 1.5 with Java 5 language support.

* Google’s engineering director David Glazer announced Open Social version 0.8 standards release and broke the news that AOL has joined the initiative. The company will be developing an implementation of Open Social on its network soon.

We’ll update more from the Google I/O event later in the day.