Product codenames are part and parcel of the technology world, with many companies choosing to go with mythological figures (Zeus, Athena), place names (Chicago, Vienna), rivers (Tualatin, Willamette), or animals (Snow Leopard, Lion) to refer to their products before they get a “real” name. With Android, Google whimsically chose to go with desserts, and has been bumping Android codenames one letter along the alphabet with each release: Cupcake, Donut, Eclair, Froyo (for “frozen yogurt”), Gingerbread, Honeycomb, and now Ice Cream Sandwich. Now comes word that the next two Android releases will be “Jelly Bean” and “Key Lime Pie.” But with the Android ecosystem still struggling to get its hands on Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich,” what can folks expect future releases to bring?
Google itself has had absolutely nothing to say publicly about future versions of Android, and — as expected — declined to comment. So these represent educated guesses about Jelly Bean and Key Lime Pie… sprinkled with a a few things we’ve heard through the grapevine.
The “Jelly Bean” name isn’t news: It’s been kicking around since mid-2011, with strong confirmations only landing when Google started gearing up for Ice Cream Sandwich. Just like ICS, Google is being tight-lipped about what it plans to include in Jelly Bean. Expect these key features.
Tablets… and notebooks? — As with Android HoneyComb, Google is expected to be optimizing Jelly Bean for tablets and other large-screened devices, potentially including notebooks or netbooks that could dual boot Windows and Android, and possibly run them live side-by-side without requiring users to shut down one or the other. Although noted by only one source in the Android device industry, the rationale is apparently two-fold: Google’s Chrome OS (and associated Chromebooks) have so far failed to gain traction amongst consumers, and tablet makers haven’t considered Ice Cream Sandwich to be a game-changer for Android in the tablet arena. If Android wants to take on the iPad, Jelly Bean will need to bring a better proposition to device makers.
Assistant — Apple has a strong hit on its hands with Siri in the iPhone 4S, and Redmond has been touting the “TellMe” feature in Windows Phone 7. Google seems to be preparing to fire back with “Assistant,” a natural voice recognition system for Android devices. Formerly codenamed Majel, few details are available for Assistant, save that Google is targeting natural language processing (rather than requiring voice commands use a particular syntax), and that Google plans to integrate Assistant with core Android functions like messaging and search. Two sources at Android device makers confirm Google intends to expose Assistant capabilities to third-party developers so their apps can use the technology — something Apple has yet to do with Siri — but no details or timetables are available.
Google’s move into natural speech recognition isn’t surprising, especially since the company considers Siri a competitive threat. However, the processing requirements of real-time natural speech recognition might mean that Assistant — or perhaps Jelly Bean itself — will likely be restricted to dual- or possibly quad-core Android devices. That, in turn, means consumers who recently bought into the Android ecosystem may find themselves shut out again when Jelly Bean hits the streets.
(For the trivia fans: ‘Majel’ refers to Majel Barret-Roddenberry, wife of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. In addition to starring in several roles in franchise, she was the voice of the Federation’s computer systems from the original series all the way through J.J. Abram’s Star Trek reboot.)
Chrome — Last month Google released a beta of its Chrome browser for Android, and it seems obvious that Chrome is destined to take center stage on upcoming releases. Among other things, Chrome for Android will enable Android to catch up with persistent tabbed browsing — a feature already available in iOS and Windows Phone 7. The Chrome beta for Android has also garnered praise for its performance, rendering fidelity, and in-page search.
Keyboards — Although Google upped the ante in Ice Cream Sandwich by improving Android’s built-in on-screen keyboard, many expect Google to take it a few steps further in Jelly Bean. It will still likely leave room for third-party applications like Swype and SwiftKey, but improve language switching and integration with Assistant for voice dictation.
Tighter Google Services integration — Android devices already require a Google account to use effectively. With Google’s new all-encompassing user tracking and emphasis on social services, expect Jelly Bean to do everything it can to get users to interact with (and prefer) Google services over those of competitors. This is likely to include direct integration with Google+ and deeper support for Google TV — which, after all, Google’s Eric Schmidt forecast would be on the majority of new TVs by mid-year.
File manager? — Some speculation on Android Jelly Bean has hinted the OS might include a file manager: After all, some Android device manufacturers (like Samsung) are now including file managers as part of their standard apps, and file manager applications are popular downloads on the Android market. It makes sense: when devices sport 16GB to 32GB to even 64GB of storage, some folks will want to browse the file system and handle things themselves.
However, overall industry momentum seems to be shifting away from providing direct access to the file system, particularly on mobile devices. Apple’s iOS doesn’t provide file-system access, both Windows and Mac OS X have taken major steps to insulate users from the file system, and Google didn’t offer a file manager with its Chrome OS until May of last year (when it began to introduce offline capabilities). Historically, file system management has been one of the most frustrating aspects of computers for consumers: just mention
~/Library/Application Support to watch eyes glaze over. Although Google will almost certainly continue to support third-party file managers for Android devices, the company seems more likely to put more work into abstracting the file system — and making it friendlier for non-technical consumers — than to expose it for power users.
Malware protection? — As Android becomes an increasingly popular target for scammers and malware, Jelly Bean may also see Google’s first efforts and built-in malware protection; especially since the freewheeling nature of the official Android Market and the proliferation of third-party markets seems to make it all too easy for users to inadvertently stumble on malicious software. Don’t look for Google to compete outright with mobile security offerings from third-party companies, but don’t be surprised if Google builds some basic capabilities into the operating system to detect and potentially neutralize some threats.
Flash in the pan? — Android Jelly Bean may also follow in the steps of Windows 8 for ARM and iOS and abandon Adobe Flash. Although Adobe says it will keep publishing security updates for Flash on Android and BlackBerry’s Playbook, the company shipped its final version of mobile Flash in December, opting instead to focus on HTML5 development for mobile, and refocus Flash as a gaming and rich-media platform for PCs. Although Jelly Bean may continue to support Flash for Ice Cream Sandwich as an optional add-on, don’t expect Jelly Bean to come with Flash on board.
Will it be Android 5.0? — Google hasn’t said when it plans to take the wraps off Jelly Bean: Smart money seems to be at the Google I/O conference in late June. Reports and speculation from last week’s Mobile World Conference in Barcelona have Jelly Bean lined up as Android 5.0, there’s also some thought that Jelly Bean might instead be numbered Android 4.5: more of an incremental update adding additional features for tablets and larger devices than an all-new version of Android.
Key Lime Pie
After Jelly Bean, the next major release of Android will reportedly be “Key Lime Pie” — news of the codename was first reported by The Verge, to the disappointment of kheer, kugel, and Klondike Bar fans everywhere. Given that Jelly Bean isn’t expected to land until mid-2012 — which means eligible devices likely will be getting updates through the rest of 2012 — Key Lime Pie seems to be a project aiming at 2013. At that point, it will likely be competing with whatever Apple has up its sleeve for followups to the iPhone 4S and the soon-to-be-announced iPad 3.
Although it’s too early to speculate meaningfully, Key Lime Pie would seem to be a logical release for Google to double down both its still-pending acquisition of Motorola Mobility and the promise of 4G mobile broadband by introducing a new class of Android hardware specs with support for high-performance, battery-sipping , high-definition mobile video. App developers and streaming content providers will certainly be entering that market earlier — assuming mobile operators introduce affordable service plans. But 2013 should be the year LTE networks take off in the United States, and Google will want Android to be at the forefront.
Any bets on L?
So what’s after Key Lime Pie? Nobody knows yet; it could be anything from Licorice to Lemon Bars. We’d guess Lemon Meringue Pie, but two pies in a row seems unlikely. Perhaps Google will offer a stripped-down version of Android as Low-Cal Cheesecake.