Android 4.1 'Jelly Bean' takes on Apple's Siri

New mobile OS also boosts performance, actionable notifications; Kindle Fire competitor unveiled as well

At its Google I/O developer conference today, Google announced Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean," an upgrade for its Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" mobile OS released last November but that has suffered poor adoption by hardware makers, running on just 7 percent of devices today. Much of the focus on "Jelly Bean" was improved performance. For example, it runs all processes' and apps' screen display at 60 frames per second to make the UI run more smoothly, and it does predictive assessment as to where you are moving your finger to speed response as a screen refreshes. To improve performance, the processor now runs at full speed while a user is using gestures.

"Jelly Bean" will be available on the new Asus Nexus 7, a thin, lightweight, $199 7-inch tablet that Google says represents the best of the Android experience tuned for use as a Google Play entertainment device, such as for movie-watching, magazine-reading, gaming, and social networking -- similar conceptually to the same-priced Amazon.com Kindle Fire but with much beefier hardware. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus smartphone, Samsung Galaxy Nexus S smartphone, and Motorola Xoom/Xyboard tablet will also get the "Jelly Bean" upgrade over the air in mid-July. Hardware makers will get the developer kit for adopting "Jelly Bean" in the same period.

[ InfoWorld's Galen Gruman shows what Android's chief competitor -- Apple's iOS 6 -- has in store. | Subscribe to InfoWorld's Consumerization of IT newsletter today. | Get expert advice about planning and implementing your BYOD strategy with InfoWorld's 42-page "Mobile and BYOD Deep Dive" PDF special report. ]

Taking a page from Apple's Siri, Google has enhanced Android's Web search capabilities to answer questions spoken by the user, with answers spoken by the device. Also for user input, "Jelly Bean" adds a dozen languages and, via Bluetooth, Braille support.

In a feature called Google Now, saved search results add context, such as when the next bus is scheduled to arrive or what a restaurant is best known for. It will also make suggestions, such as when to leave to catch your bus, and updates you on what you've previously searched, such as the terminal for a flight and if it is delayed. Google Now marries search with proactive interpretation of what you have indicated you are doing, merging notifications and search, including tracking your search history to build a profile of your activities, such as what neighborhoods you frequent, what sports teams you follow, when you go to the gym, and what transportation methods you favor. It uses the notion of cards to contain each activity.

Android's dictation feature no longer requires Internet connection -- the voice-recognition engine is now in the OS for offline use and poor-quality connections. That comes as Apple has added dictation to its third-gen iPad and forthcoming OS X Mountain Lion, requiring an Internet connection as Google's more established dictation capability used to require.

Jelly Bean also improves widget and app home screen management with auto-resizing of widgets to fit and a toss-away gesture for widgets and apps. Other improvements include actionable notification widgets, such as being able to let people in a meeting know you're running late or sharing a photo directly from a notification.

The Google Play app store now provides "smart updates," which allows for differential updates of installed apps, so users don't have to download the entire file, just the changed parts. It's available on Android 2.3 "Gingerbread" and later versions, with no changes required by developers to their apps.

Taking a page from Apple's iTunes, Google Play is adding magazine subscriptions, movie sales, and the ability for users to upload their own music (up to 20,000 songs) for use on all Android devices.

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