How Google should fix Android's shortcomings

We'll soon know the cool new mobile capabilities in store -- but don't let that cause long-standing irritations to go unresolved

Google opens its Google I/O conference tomorrow, promising to reveal details on upcoming versions of its Android mobile operating system, Chrome OS Web operating system, and Chrome browser, among other technologies. Typically, such previews focus on new technologies or services. The irritants in the existing OSes tend to be ignored, and they often remain in a new version.

But there are several irritants Google needs to address, both in an update to Android 4.x "Jelly Bean" and as part of any planned Android 4.3 or 5.0 "Key Lime Pie" OS. (Several folks have seen Android 4.3 signatures in the wild and assume that's a rev of "Jelly Bean" and not the new "Key Lime Pie," but remember that "Jelly Bean" was Android 4.1, which was then revved to 4.2, with its multiuser account support, confusing lock-screen widgets, and cool photo controls. This followed 4.0's "Ice Cream Sandwich," which followed 3.0's "Honeycomb," which followed 2.3's "Gingerbread," which followed 2.2's "Froyo," which followed 2.0's and 2.1's "Eclair," which followed 1.6's "Donut," which followed the unnamed 1.5, 1.1, and 1.0 versions -- see the pattern? Or the lack thereof?)

[ Here are the irritants that Galen Gruman says need to be fixed in Apple's iOS 6. | Want a media tablet? InfoWorld pits the Nexus 7 against the iPad Mini and Kindle Fire. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights via Twitter and with the Mobile Edge blog and Mobilize newsletter. ]

A media strategy with dull teeth
The biggest issue with Android is its poor integration with computers, particularly around media files. Google has big aspirations to measure up as a rival to Apple's iTunes, but it lacks the software infrastructure to pull it off at the user's home. Now that ISPs have joined cellular carriers in metering your broadband connections, Google's "download on demand" approach risks becoming unaffordable. Meanwhile, Apple has made iTunes backup and syncing nearly automatic over a set-and-forget Wi-Fi connection, while also providing the "download on demand" approach as a complementary setup.

Google's Android File Transfer utility is very primitive, like something from a 1970s mainframe. Samsung's Kies and the DoubleTwist app available for most Android devices are better, but still way behind iTunes. If Google is serious about its media aspirations, it needs to double down on creating an iTunes-like environment -- before Apple finally wakes up and provides iTunes for Android, which would seal its hegemony.

If you use an iPhone or iPad, you know how wonderful the AirPlay feature is in tandem with an Apple TV; it makes conference presentations a snap, and video playback becomes dead-simple across iTunes-enabled devices. The standard video-out capabilities through the Dock or Lightning connector mean you can present or play on any VGA or HDMI monitor.

In contrast, Android devices are all over the map when it comes to video-out. Three kinds of video-out ports are in use, and many devices have none. Some devices support the DLNA wireless video transmission protocol, but it's implemented unevenly across various TV and stereo makers -- it's a standard that isn't standard. In other words, Android is a mess when it comes to video-out.

Google should universally adopt the new Miracast protocol, as that ensures the much-needed interoperability. I suggest that Google's licensing terms for the Android 4.3 or 5.0 name require that there be Miracast implemented. At the very least, require at least one of two video-out technologies on a device: SlimPort and/or Miracast (which is already deployed in the Nexus 10 tablet but not in the Nexus 4 smartphone). That would let the Android join the video and presentation parties for real. If device makers also feel the need to support DLNA, MiniHDMI, or MHL as well, fine. But create a common playing field.

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