Now that the Galaxy Nexus is being revealed to the world in more places than one and Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich is about to hit the public in a very big way, there’s certainly a few questions you, the Android user, might want answered. While in Hong Kong earlier this month, we took part in an early Q and A session with several of the head product managers of Android itself. What follows is a transcript of that session. The first question comes from no less than our very own Vincent Nguyen who decidedly cracks the silence with a question about the lockscreen on the new Nexus running Android 4.0.
Included in this talk were Caroline Hsu Head of Communications for Google in Taiwan and Hong Kong, Gabe Cohen, Product manager for Android Gmail, Hugo Barra, Product Management Director for Android, and Matias Duarte, Director of Android OS User Experience, and each is marked where they speak.
Also check out our Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich complete guide for answers to any questions not answered below.
Vincent Nguyen: I was wondering, when you did the face recognition – is there an alternate means to get into the device incase it doesn’t work?
Matias Duarte: Yes of course, you can either use a pin (code) or a pattern (much like previous versions of Android). And sometimes if the lighting is too strong, there’s backlighting, or you’re too dark, of course the camera can’t pick up a good enough image – so sometimes have to use that backup.
Vincent Nguyen: Will that be extended to just unlocking, or can you unlock let’s say Dropbox or other apps where it does require a pin or –
Matias Duarte: The feature right now is just for unlocking the phone.
From here on out it’s mostly 3rd-party publishers in the room asking questions so they’ll be marked by “Q” except where it’s Vince.
Q: How many languages do you support for voice recognition?
Hugo Barra: Oh man, I don’t have the exact number for the large number but it’s already over 20 languages.
Q: Does that include Chinese?
Hugo Barra: Yes, of course!
Q: Cantonese maybe?
Hugo Barra: Yep.
Q: Does it translate through your Google server or does it translate on the fly, on the device?
Hugo Barra: The speech detect service that you saw on stage today was server based. But we’ve developed an approach to stream audio down to the server and stream the results back and it’s so fast that you might even think that it’s on the device.
Q: I wonder if Android 4.0 will have a minimum hardware requirement – like Android 3.0 does?
Hugo Barra: No specific ones come to mind.
Q: To your estimation, how many Android 2.3 handsets can be upgraded to Android 4.0?
Gabe Cohen: We’re currently in the process of releasing Ice Cream Sandwich for Nexus S as well it should work for any 2.3 device.
Hugo Barra: When we design new versions of the Android operating system we optimize them for the new generation of devices. So we expect that everything will work back to certainly MOST Gingerbread devices, but we certainly designed with future devices in mind first and foremost.
Gabe Cohen: And some of the features you saw are specific to the Galaxy Nexus like the camera.
Hugo Barra: We’re pretty confident that 2.3 devices will work just fine with the program.
Q: You’ve talked much about phones, but how about tablet sized [devices]? Are upgrades scheduled?
Matias Duarte: Ice Cream Sandwich will be released on phones and tablets at the same time. So it’s one release, Android 4.0 will work on both. Today we focused on the Galaxy Nexus, but all of the features you saw, all of the design innovations, all of the new user interface paradigms are also coming to the tablet.
Q: Any improvement for malware?
Hugo Barra: We’re continually improving our detection of malware and we’re taking action inside all types of platforms, all, it’s something we do 24/7.
Q: About Gmail and offline Google search [mentioned today] – does this include attachments?
Gabe Cohen: The attachment contents themselves aren’t indexed, but with Gmail you adjust by sync window, a certain amount of time – by default it’s 30 days. Everything that’s inside that sync window is synced out to 30 days including attachments. So if I search for mail that has an attachment, I’ll be able to find it, I’ll be able to open the attachment.
Hugo Barra: Ask as many Gmail questions as you can because Gabe is the P and L for Gmail.
Gabe Cohen: Product Manager.
Q: Can you compare to Siri? Google has voice control, voice command, voice search, voice everything – compared to Siri – what do you think about the competition?
Matias Duarte: Well, we don’t like to set ourselves in a head-to-head kind of way, you know, Apple makes terrific products, I think Siri is great; I think it’s really hard in the long run to follow strategy of making kind of an artificial personality. You know, it can be really funny at first, but that uncanny value of just, uh, having a personality that you start to interact with, um, as you would a person, with all the contextual ambiguity you would with a real person – that’s a really challenging approach, and they’re going for it, that’s great. Out approach is different. The metaphor I like to take is – if it’s Star Wars, you have these robot personalities like C-3PO who runs around and he tries to do stuff for you, messes up and makes jokes, he’s kind of a comic relief guy. Our approach is more like Star Trek, right, starship Enterprise; every piece of computing surface, everything is voice-aware. It’s not that there’s a personality, it doesn’t have a name, it’s just “Computer.” And you can talk to it and you can touch it, you can interact with it at the same time as you talk with it. It’s just another way to interface with the computer.
Hugo Barra: We introduced voice search probably about four years ago, it was part of Android from the very beginning. And then with the Nexus One we introduced what we call Voice Input – a new version of which we saw on stage today. And very quickly, even though voice search was INCREDIBLY popular all over the world where it was launched, very very quickly we saw the usage of voice input – so the speech detect feature on the keyboard – quickly just take over in terms of usage because it’s everywhere. Wherever you can type, you could type, now you can speak.
Matias Duarte: You don’t even need an API to tap into it, right, it’s just every text field that’s speech enabled.
Hugo Barra: And that’s been incredibly successful.
Q: And what about Mandarine or Cantonese –
Gabe Cohen: It’s already available.
Hugo Barra: Of course the accuracy of a new language varies, and rather than keep a language that we designed a new language model for, keep iterating on it, we prefer to launch it as soon as we think its good enough and then using all of the data we acquired from usage will improve it and improve it and improve it. So languages that launched a long time ago, like all the flavors of English for example, are much more mature and will offer higher accuracy because they’ve been so worked on compared to some of the newer languages that we’ve launched – for example Cantonese is a more recent language launch, but its going to get better and better as you give it time.
Vincent Nguyen: For the instant voice input [real-time speech], is that still dependent on the carrier quality? Or is there a local file-save so that it starts to learn your usage?
Hugo Barra: Real-time speech is over a data-link so you certainly get better latency over a better data connection, but that’s the only impact I can think of that’s related to the carrier.
Vincent Nguyen: But is there anything saved locally, or is everything – is there a profile of how you use it?
Hugo Barra: No.
Vincent Nguyen: So there’s no customization at all to the voice input?
Hugo Barra: We’ve launched a Beta feature called Personalized Voice Recognition in the U.S. for U.S. usage only sometime in the last year – if you are a user in the U.S. and you’ve opted in to Personalized Voice Recognition then you will get the benefits of that technology, but so far it’s only launched in the United States.
Q: When will Google open up the source for 4.0 Android? Open Source.
Hugo Barra: We haven’t given a date yet, but it will be some time pretty soon after the first new devices launch on it. Very very soon.
Matias Duarte: It will be the same strategy we’ve done for all out other open source releases – put products on the market, then we open source it, and what this open source is – phones, tablets, everything is covered in it.
Hugo Barra: And the SDK launched today, already available on Android.com.
Matias Duarte: So you can start making those gorgeous apps right away.
Q: What kind of applications do you expect from developers such as enterprise kind of Beams or applications?
Gabe Cohen: We’re really excited to see what they’ll do with the technology like the bits available to these developers to allow users to, sort of, share between devices. I think – you know – objects within games, information within games, I think that it’s really exciting. We certainly see a lot of social applications, we imagine all the people who are out there doing internet-based sharing services who could take advantage of Beam to local sharing with friends, too.
Hugo Barra: I’ve seen some games developed using the Android Beam APIs already that haven’t launched, but we’ve been working with a few partners. I predict that you’ll see a new category of games for close proximity multiplayer head-to-head. So Gabe and I are on the bus and we’re just talking – we can both, you know, if we both have the same game and we only touch our phones and we start a head-to-head match right there.
Gabe Cohen: It’s really interesting, not only can you use Beam to make sure the both of you have the same application or the same game, you can use to bootstrap a direct computer connection through bluetooth or Wi-fi or whatever, we expect to see that.
Vincent Nguyen: Can you help explain what happens to Honeycomb now that everything is converting to Ice Cream Sandwich?
Matias Duarte: Well this is the new version – Ice Cream Sandwich runs on phones and on tablets, just like you would upgrade from Gingerbread to Ice Cream Sandwich, you can upgrade from Honeycomb to Ice Cream Sandwich.
Hugo Barra: They all converge.
Matias Duarte: We finally brought it all back together. It’s what we’ve all been waiting for.
Hugo Barra: You should expect most Android devices to upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich. As well as Honeycomb devices to upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich.
Q: Applications, from now on, they should be running on both handsets and tablets without any hassles? Because we have problems from tablet and –
Gabe Cohen: There is a variety of development issues involved in supporting the broad choices that users have in the Android system for devices, but specifically in Honeycomb we started introducing a system called Fragments that allows you to design applications that can run on different form factors very seamlessly. We also recently launched what we call multiple APK support in the Android Market which allows you to actually have tailor made APKs for different devices. Sometimes you want different assets, sometimes you have different markets you want different resources, that sort of thing, but the Android team itself has been simultaneously building all of the applications you just saw on phones and tablets – our team provides that development platform to make sure that that process is straightforward, well documented, easy to use.
Matias Duarte: It’s the same application that runs on both, and the UI customizes and adapts itself for both. And one of the really cool new pieces of the framework that make it really easy for developers to create these easy applications is this new action bar system that we talked about. We talked about today how the Action Bar allows you to take all the stuff that used to be hidden and invisible, inside menus they had to hunt for – it puts it front and center. This is actually the way that we’ve built applications in Honeycomb. It’s the same Action Bar and it dynamically changes based on your screen size. So Android does the hardware for you. You just decide what actions you want to expose to your users and then we will customize your UI for phones and for tablets.
Gabe Cohen: Just to give you an example, let’s take Gmail. In tablet in Honeycomb Gmail you have a single row of actions at the top that give you all your message actions. When its on phone it’s dynamically adjusted to split the actions between top and bottom and to put some in an overflow that don’t fit on the screen. On a larger device, more fit on the screen. When I rotate the phone into landscape, those actions all come up into a single bar. So we think its a really convenient system. And that pattern basically is in most of our apps. Just to show you an example – you see these icons at the bottom of the device, when I rotate into landscape they all shift to the top, right? As opposed to being in two different compartments.
Matias Duarte: And this system allows us to handle that incredible diversity of Android devices, it’s one of the things that makes Android so popular. If your screen size isn’t 4.65 inches but it’s a 3.65 inch device – maybe you want something that’s a little bit more pocketable, that’s not a problem. We just dynamically change the size of the action bar, a couple of the less important actions get packed away into the overflow. Go into a big tablet, 10-inch tablet, everything gets unpacked. You go onto a smaller tablet, a 7-inch tablet – same app, same UI, again a few more actions get relegated to the overflow.
Q: In Android 3.0 you have restrictions on manufacturer the level of customized UI, how about 4.0?
Matias Duarte: We have no restrictions on customized UI.
Gabe Cohen: There are Honeycomb products that have customized UI just like the Samsung Galaxy Tab [10.1], that’s not vanilla Android UI.
Hugo Barra: Yeah, you shouldn’t confuse that with open-source. Android 4.0 is going to be really open source, it’s going to be able take customization to a much further level than you see with Honeycomb in which the customization was much more stringent.
Matias Duarte: We absolutely welcome and encourage that OEM customization – that is one of the reasons why Android is so popular, its not just that the OEMs can make the right sized phone, the right color, the right shape for each and every one of you, it also means that they can continue to customize the software and really hit specific target markets, specific demographics segments, specific cultural segments.
Gabe Cohen: Exciting new form factors, you know there are radically different form factors of 3.0 devices on the market right now that were developed by third parties.
Q: Will Honeycomb apps run on phones running Ice Cream Sandwich?
Matias Duarte: Honeycomb apps will not run on phones, Honeycomb doesn’t run on phones. If you have a tablet app or basically just an app for Ice Cream Sandwich, it means that one application runs across phones, tablets, you name it.
Q: So there will still be the divide for legacy applications that were written specifically for Honeycomb that will only run on tablets running Ice Cream Sandwich?
Gabe Cohen: It’s not that clear of a line – so, we have seen, in the process of testing this product we have seen applications from the market ensuring that we have good compatibility without actually getting any changes to those applications. We run Honeycomb 3.0 applications on Ice Cream Sandwich phones, like apps that were developed for tablet using the fragment we’ve got, we’ve run them on phones – in any case if right things happen – it’s not always true… but yeah.
Matias Duarte: Just to be clear, this divide is not a new divide. This is the same divide that happens every time you upgrade. When you had an Android 2.0 device, and then you had an Android 3.0 platform, you had that exact same divide.
Q: I was just curious if that divide is continuing on 4 because if we’re bringing the operating systems together I was curious if the applications themselves would be brought together as well so there would be no divide between the tablet and phone.
Matias Duarte: All of our applications have been upgraded and we expect all developers are going to upgrade their applications as well because they want access to all the latest and greatest.
Gabe Cohen: We largely maintain backwards compatibility. We don’t want people who go and buy that device to have a limit of applications available on day one. So we do try to maintain backwards compatibility but we extend things, we deprecate things that no longer make sense…
Matias Duarte: And to be clear the divide is really about the tablet versus the phone it’s not, you know, a question about backwards compatibility, it’s the platform.
Q: I just saw you using the voice input in the messenger, but can you do it in an email, in the notes?
Gabe Cohen: It literally works anywhere someone put an input field into their application.
Q: Does this voice input work with instant translation?
Matias Duarte: You could write that!
Q: I could write that!
Hugo Barra: That’s not a feature of our input framework specifically, but that sort of thing can happen…
Matias Duarte: You could create an IME, a third party could create an IME [Input Method Manager] that does that translation.
Hugo Barra: So we have open translate APIs, we have open speech / text APIs – they’re available on the device, and the IMEs of the keyboards are fully customizable.
Matias Duarte: Those are also open, so that’s just like an application, so you could do that if you want.
Q: I think everyone today is looking to see more integration of the Google+ [what can you tell us about that?]
Gabe Cohen: I’ve been waiting for that question! So we talked about how people are at the center of Ice Cream Sandwich, and what we tried to do with Ice Cream Sandwich is create really a modern social operating system where there are hooks in the operating system for the common social gestures like making a friend, sharing something, and specifically we’ve developed – we’ve co-developed with Google+ against that integration we’ve built a new Google+ application for Ice Cream Sandwich that hooks into these features. And what it means is that Google+ can provide contact details and large high-res photos everywhere in the UI, not just in Google+ that show up and they show up in the phone, they show up in Gmail, they show up everywhere through quick contacts, that’s one point of integration with Google+. They’re able to put stream information in posts, directly in the operating system, that can be surfaced in different places. We even have a feature that allows users to add people to their Google+ circle directly from the People application so if you have a local address book entry for someone that’s not currently in your Google+ circles, you can just tap and add them to your circles from your contact card. And all of those features are available to any social network.
Q: Do you have any discussion with the Linux Kernel team – because the development of Linux has a lot in common with the Linux Kernel – do you have any comment on that?
Hugo Barra: I have limited insight into this – so, I work at different levels of the system, for instance I work with people who do sort of P system file work as well as networking work – sometimes we make changes that we’ve actually taken upstream – so we do contribute changes back to the main kernel, basically, source tree, and then we’ll get those changes when they flow back down to us. We maintain our own patches on top of the kernel as well, and of course I guess we do all of our own GPL things… and, of course we do, yes, we love open source. We work with the kernel community very closely and I think in Ice Cream Sandwich we’re doing pretty interesting things in the kernel. The data usage stuff that we demonstrated involved pretty serious changes to the Linux kernel that we actually contributed back upstream that we think would allow any Linux based device to do this kind of application level network association which is an entirely new feature here, of Linux, that we created.
Vincent Nguyen: There was a lot of focus – not a lot of focus, but the keyboard was redesigned in a way –
Matias Duarte: Yeah we think this is the best Android keyboard ever, and we think its as good as any other software keyboard out there.
Vincent Nguyen: SWYPE is becoming – the technology of “swiping” has been becoming popular and other companies are getting sold for a whole bunch of money; was it a conscious decision for Google just to leave that feature out?
Hugo Barra: Swiping?
Vincent Nguyen: Yeah the ability to just swipe on your keyboard.
Hugo Barra: There are, Idunno, probably about a dozen gesture keyboard available on the Android Market…
Vincent Nguyen: Yeah there are but then I won’t get this whole new keyboard that Google just put out – I’d like to have the best of both worlds.
Matias Duarte: One of the features we actually rolled out in Honeycomb and now with the integration in Ice Cream Sandwich is bringing dynamic keyboard switching in the OS so you can actually install both and have both at the same time.
Vincent Nguyen: I’ve done that and it’s terrible. I just want one keyboard and be happy with it.
Hugo Barra: It’s gonna feel a lot better to switch in Ice Cream Sandwich.
Matias Duarte: Yeah, we’ve changed the way that you switch, so you should try it, hopefully it’s not as terrible.
Vincent Nguyen: You didn’t demonstrate it on-stage so could you elaborate how you would switch?
Matias Duarte: It’s always available, on tablets we have the switch controller right there so you just tap to switch between them – on phones you just pull down that notification shade, again, and you can use that to switch between keyboards.
Q: With each update [manufacturers and developers] have to update to the newest version forever, [why should this continue with Ice Cream Sandwich?]
Hugo Barra: We certainly think that Ice Cream Sandwich has enough meat in it and enough really amazing things that our partners will want it on their phones. I think that’s probably the single most important thing we can do is to give people a reason to upgrade. To give the OEMs a reason to upgrade, there are a lot of reasons.
Matias Duarte: And I think its also – you have to understand the way the Android ecosystem works, it’s really hard because we are open sourcing this and so many people take advantage of it. But at the same time we’re working to put out these neat devices so it seems like there’s this huge gap and people are really loathe to upgrade. It just unfortunately takes time from that open source point to actually modify your version of Android to be in lock step with all of your customizations, to test it on your latest devices. It’s almost – it feels like it’s a much bigger gap, it feels different on other models, but again that’s part of what’s unique about Android and I think we’re trying to spread that balance to the best of both worlds. We’re really close with one partner to make sure that we’re brining you the best technology then keeping that open source software out there so everybody can be moving. We’ve seen quite a few OEMs in the US, and I’m actually not aware of the stats elsewhere, that are rolling out upgrades – you’ve seen like Samsung go to a bunch of Gingerbread upgrades and ah…
Hugo Barra: We’re actually in pretty good shape now, I mean we’re obviously make the data public about the version distribution and further than Gingerbread I think we’re pretty good now, we feel pretty good about that, and we’ll continue to see –
Q: Any projection on when 4.0 will be the mainstream?
Hugo Barra: Hopefully really soon!
Caroline Hsu: With your help!
Vincent Nguyen: I think that getting away from the whole capacitive button is like getting away from the whole physical keyboard, when you get rid of that whole onboard physical keyboard you open up the real-estate – was that point of your logic like – hey, lets get rid of this capacitive and lets just make it just in time, so that we have more real-estate.
Matias Duarte: That’s exactly right, one of my biggest philosophies has always been to remove those buttons because when you’re interacting with the computer it’s all about the content, and the entire UI should always be adaptive and be optimized so its what you need for that particular context. As long as we have common fixed hardware buttons there’s always going to be something that doesn’t quite work or doesn’t quite meet some situation or is a little awkward – a classic example of that was with the tablets, when you have a physical button on a tablet, it’s going to be in the wrong place sometimes because sometimes we want it in portrait, sometimes we want it in landscape and you’re just reaching for the wrong place. So starting with tablets and now continuing on to phones we’re trying to take all of those core system controls and make them digital, continue to evolve them, make them more and more interactive, more and more gestural, more and more compelling. And that’s great flexibility for our partners as well. Because now that it’s completely digital, they can also help us innovate these areas.
Hugo Barra: And once you’ve tried them as a user, once you’ve spent days or weeks with a device – you’re not gonna want to go back. It’s gonna feel like you’re taking a trip 10 years in time when you’re all of a sudden having to deal with physical buttons.
Matias Duarte: If I may geek out a little bit on the usability side of things: it’s actually much more ergonomic to have all of your UI have the same type of affordance – because there’s this weird mental disconnect that happens when half of your actions are half-new but for one type of stroke, one type of pressure. And even though you’re not conscious about it, it causes this reset and skip in your brain when you have to change to a different type of button with a different feedback. Even the silkscreen capacitive buttons, right, just having the different contrast level where your eye has to adjust focus first on the screen and then to printing. All those things are little usability speed bumps so we’re smoothing all that out, making it all the same interface.
Vincent Nguyen: And one of our biggest complains with that is vendors will put them in different orders, and so every time we would pick up a new device it’s like ‘oh my gosh, where are the buttons?’ And to add to your point, and coming from a developer’s perspective, they’re gonna love you because – that’s one of, in our opinion why BlackBerry is failing because they’ve got all these different chassis and different button layouts; when it comes to development it’s a big mess.
Hugo Barra: There are some very interesting specifics about how it affects application development on Android. We’ve been co-developing on devices with hardware keys like the Nexus S [at the same time as] the Galaxy Nexus. And there’s an abstraction system that’s basically built in to the Action Bar that we’ve talked about which knows to do the right thing when there’s a physical menu button versus no menu button and purely virtual system keys.
Vincent Nguyen: Did you cut any costs out from eliminating – from just not having that capacitive?
Hugo Barra: Fewer parts always make OEMs happy.
Caroline Hsu: You’ll have to ask OEMs on that.
Q: [On Android Beam] do you talk about the possibility of hacks of personal data?
Hugo Barra: It’s impossible to read data off of someones device using Android Beam that’s not participating – you can only send something to a device when it’s unlocked.
Matias Duarte: Android Beam is about sending something and we wanted to make it completely effortless and intuitive. You don’t have to go into menus or turn on a setting or decide you want to share: you just put the devices together, the animation comes up, your content just floats in space and you just push it through space to the other device. The trick is that it’s also completely secure and safe because you have to do that, your phone has to be on, you have to actually look at that screen, and push that content to the other device – nobody can sneak up and steal it away from you or anything like that.
Hugo Barra: Yeah- you can’t go around touching people’s buttons with your phone, stuff like that.
Matias Duarte: It’s completely user initiated, it’s as simple as using your business card. We wanted to make it a physical interaction.
And thus ended the Q and A. If you have any questions that need clarifying or believe someone was mis-quoted above, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below. Again this whole talk took place during the Samsung / Google event in which the Galaxy Nexus was revealed and Ice Cream Sandwich’s final build was formally released. You can check out the rest of our information on the subjects through the following portals: [Ice Cream Sandwich], [Galaxy Nexus], [Samsung], and [Android].