Android 4.1 Jelly Bean further fragments the OS as many handsets wait to update to Android 4.0. CNET weighs in on how far the Android OS has come and where it’s going.

by Jessica Dolcourt

Google has come a long way since the early days when it struggled to convince the world that its friendly green extraterrestrial could make applesauce of the revolutionary iPhone.

In truth, Google’s first Android phone, the HTC-made T-Mobile G1, wasn’t much to look at when it debuted in October 2008, with its trough for a keyboard and its bizarrely jutting chin. HTC was hardly a known brand, and we weren’t even sure if we were getting a single Google Phone or an entire operating system. Yet the humble G1, with its ugly design and few apps, kicked off an Android avalanche just the same.

Fast-forward to 2012, when the now-mature Android operating system is neck and neck with the iPhone around the globe. Android is everywhere.

Yet for all the platform’s success, Android is still plagued by fragmentation, by too many versions of the operating system available at the same time across handsets and carriers. Developers and the press will once again raise a hue and cry this week when Google spills the beans on its Jelly Bean OS at Google I/O. As of today, many existing Android 2.3 Gingerbread smartphones are still waiting for their Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich updates, eight months after the SDK became available.

A little perspective tends to go a long way, and in light of that, here’s a look at milestones in Google’s Android operating system, from its humble beginnings to its current ambitions in smartphone and tablet domination.

Android version SDK release* Notable updates
1.0 (G1) February 2008
  • GPS and Bluetooth (but not stereo Bluetooth)
  • Multitasking
  • Tight integration with Google services like Gmail, Google Maps (with Street View), and Google Calendar
  • Apps: Amazon MP3 Store; YouTube
  • Android Market (about 35 apps at launch)
  • No Microsoft Exchange Server; no camcorder
1.5 (Cupcake) April 2009
  • Universal search box (search had been limited to the Web)
  • Revamped Android Market: Browsing categories (Apps, Games, Downloads) and filters (Top Free, Top Paid, Just In)
  • Camera: Toggle between camera and video modes; integrated photo gallery and camera with bulk photo deleting
  • SDK expands support for gestures, voice-to-text
1.6 (Donut) September 2009
  • Virtual onscreen keyboard
  • Camcorder mode for recording (and watching) video
  • Stereo Bluetooth
  • Home screen widgets and folders
  • Copy/paste and search within the browser
  • Direct upload to YouTube and Picasa
2.0 (Eclair) October 2009
  • Multiple user accounts
  • Exchange support; universal e-mail inbox
  • Quick Contact pop-up widget to launch communications with friends in the address book
  • Search saved SMS and MMS messages
  • Camera improvements include support for flash and digital zoom
  • Bluetooth 2.1
  • Keyboard improvements: Adaptive dictionary that includes contact names in suggestions
2.1 (Eclair, second helping) January 2010
  • Live wallpaper; five home screens
  • Speech-to-text added to any text field; microphone icon for voice dictation in e-mails, texts, and so on
2.2 (Froyo) May 2010
  • Speedier OS
  • USB tethering and hot-spot support
  • Android Market update: Batch and automatic updates; installing apps to the SD card
  • Adobe Flash 10.1
  • File uploading in the browser
  • Improved Microsoft Exchange support: Security policies, global address lookup, calendar sync, remote wipe
  • Bluetooth support for voice dialing and contact sharing
2.3 (Gingerbread) December 2010
  • Redesigned copy/paste
  • WebM video compression support
  • NFC (near-field communication) support
  • Switch to front-facing camera from camera app
  • Virtual keyboard shortcuts
3.0 (Honeycomb) February 2011
  • 3D graphics support
  • Side-by-side browser tabs; private browsing
  • Dual-pane modes for address book, e-mail
  • Redesigned UI includes program thumbnails
  • Video chatting with Google Talk
  • Full-screen-mode photo gallery
  • Bluetooth tethering
3.1-3.2.6 (Honeycomb) May 2011-February 2012
  • Support for peripherals like keyboards and game pads
  • Resizable widgets
  • “Pay as you go” support for 3G, 4G tablets
  • Various bug fixes and enhancements
4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) October 2011
  • Support for virtual buttons in addition to touch-sensitive buttons
  • Create folders by dragging apps on top of each other
  • A new app tray tab for thumbing through widgets
  • Calendar app now supports pinch-to-zoom
  • Gmail gets offline search, swiping between conversations
  • Revamped Gmail user interface
  • New Chrome browser syncs with your bookmarks, saves pages offline, supports 16 browser tabs
  • More keyboard error correction, inline spell check
  • Customizable lock screen, launcher
  • Recent applications icon
  • Roboto typeface
  • New swipe/delete behavior
  • Improved voice integration and copy and paste
  • Face Unlock security feature
  • Data Usage tracking
  • Hide unwanted app icons
  • Shut down apps that are using background data
  • Native camera features include zero shutter lag, continuous focus, zoom while recording, taking a still photo while recording, panorama photos, time lapse settings 1080p recording
  • Face detection in the camera
  • Integrated photo editor
  • New gallery layout, organized by location and person
  • Phone app lets you swipe between favorite friends with integrated visual voice mail
  • Speed up and slow down voice mails
  • Quick message sends canned response text message when you decline a call
  • Android Beam, an NFC feature for exchanging information between two phones by tapping them
  • Wi-Fi Direct support
4.1 (Jelly Bean) July 2012
  • Faster, smoother performance with “Project Butter”
  • Expandable notifications with greater interaction
  • Voice search access by swiping up from bottom of the screen
  • Voice actions engine replies to some queries
  • Google Now
  • Offline dictation
  • Default Chrome browser
  • Resizable app widgets (for some)
  • Android Beam support for transferring larger files, like photo and video
  • New filmstrip view of recent shots in the camera app
  • Applications update in Google Play with just the changed code
  • Sound search widget for music ID
  • Higher-resolution contact photos
  • Greater accessibility options
  • Expanded language support, especially for Arabic and Hebrew
  • Interface tweaks
* The date reflects the SDK release rather than the over-the-air (OTA) update timeline since OTA release dates vary by carrier and handset model.

Jelly Bean (Android 4.1)
Less than a year after the Ice Cream Sandwich release, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean builds from Android 4.0 with incremental additions that still pack a lot of punch.

Google’s Voice Actions has been dusted off, prettied up, and thrown into the spotlight to stand against Apple’s Siri. Google also devised Google Now, an optional program that uses your GPS coordinates, calendar, and search history to anticipate your needs for travel information, sports scores, public transportation routes, and reminders on when to leave in order to make your appointments on time.

Google has also built out its notifications to let you see and do more whenever you get a new alert, and expanded Android Beam, which now transfers meatier files like photos and video, in addition to URLs, maps, and contact details.

Fragmentation on the rise
While Jelly Bean is a worthy update, Google is only digging itself deeper into the fragmentation mess. Most current phones have been brought up to Android 2.3 Gingerbread, but despite its announcement eight months ago, Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich is still shiny, new, and absent from the majority of top U.S. smartphones. The hunger for Jelly Bean, which arrives first for the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Samsung Nexus S, Motorola Xoom, and Google Nexus 7 tablet will only frustrate more.



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