BARCELONA -- Google is not letting on much about the next version of Android, even though it is rumored to be coming to a smartphone by early summer.
More likely, it will be rolled out in the fall, based on comments made by Hiroshi Lockheimer, vice president of engineering for mobile at Google. He spoke with Computerworld at Mobile World Congress here Monday.
"After Android 4 comes 5, and we haven't announced the timing yet, which we're still sorting out," Lockheimer said. "There's a lot of engineering work behind it still, and there's also just the question of how to time it."
Lockheimer added: "In general, the Android release cadence is one major release a year with some maintenance releases that are substantial still." That statement would suggest a fall 2012 time frame for the release of Android 5.0, given that Android 4.0 was released last November, he acknowledged.
Nonetheless, Lockheimer added a caveat: "Having said that, we're flexible. The [timing of releases] is not what drives us, but what does is innovation and offering users a great experience."
Lockheimer wouldn't divulge the dessert name that Android 5.0 will be called, following after Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) for 4.0. Google is already getting suggestions for sweets that begin with the letter "J" for the version of Android coming after 5.0, he said. Earlier versions of the mobile operating system were called Cup Cake 1.5 , Donut (2.0) , Eclair (2.1), Froyo 2.2 , Gingerbread (2.3) and Honeycomb (3.0).
Google is still enjoying the success of Android 4.0, a version that was well-received by developers and users. At MWC, the large Google booth, located in the back corner of a major exhibition hall, was crowded with visitors to dozens of Google partners showing off their ICS-related applications.
One Google partner, Wyse Technologies, uses Android Beam technology to run its NFC software in ICS to initiate file transfers between devices.
Using two Galaxy Nexus phones, Wyse employees placed the first phone near the second to give it permission to access a file kept in the cloud or on a PC. The actual download of the file to the second phone was sent over Wi-Fi, but a 3G or other wireless signal could be used. NFC is too constrained to transfer the actual file, they said.
Lockheimer said Android Beam has led to dozens of other applications, many of them sold in Android Market, including an app that allows two users to share a video by bringing two NFC phones close together, even in mid-stream of a video clip. StumbleUpon demonstrated a similar technology at its booth inside the Google booth.
Lockheimer listed several ICS improvements that have been popular with users, including data-usage and battery-usage meters and widgets on the home screen.
While ICS was center stage at Google's booth, many users have expressed frustration that ICS upgrades have not arrived on devices running older Android versions. Lockheimer acknowledged there is frustration over receiving ICS upgrades in a timely manner, which was why the Android Upgrade Alliance was announced at last year's Google I/O conference. The premise of the group was that phone manufacturers and wireless carriers would provide timely upgrades of devices during their first 18 months on the market.
"The alliance is definitely making a difference," Lockheimer said. "We're making the upgrade process better and are passionate about it. ...There's a lot of progress being made towards making upgrades smoother."
But Lockheimer added that "getting upgrades to users is very complicated. ... By the time you add up all the players, it's a big pipeline, a big assembly line, with lots of parts. Everyone needs to be working in tight coordination."
Lockheimer wouldn't divulge any specific directions for the next version of Android. "Things we will add in the future are around simplicity and power [simultaneously]," he said. "That's an ongoing theme at Google and increasingly so." Those simultaneous directions are meant to satisfy both sophisticated users and beginners to Android, he explained.
"We're proud of our work in the OS, and we want to offer a polished experience [in the future] that's even faster and smoother." he said. "We call that 'butter,' which can take many forms. [Future versions of Android] should run even faster and smoother, and even butter-er," he quipped.
Android was founded on the principle of openness, which means it has been customized by carriers and manufacturers alike, so those groups can provide unique characteristics to differentiate themselves, Lockheimer noted. Google is satisfied that some users want plain vanilla Android on their smartphones and tablets , while carriers, makers and other users want the added layers that provide customization, he added.
"Having both traits [of plain vanilla and highly customized Android phones] is a strength of Android," Lockheimer said. "How did Android get here? It was through openness, and by the way you can customize it. As long you don't mess with its compatibility, you can customize it. That's the secret of our success. [Android makers and carriers] don't all want to do the same thing as one another, and they want to innovate."
At the same time, Lockheimer said Google is well aware that "some users prefer our true Google experience," which is one reason that ICS includes the ability to strip off many apps and functions added by manufacturers and carriers.
"If you prefer plain ICS, you can disable the [added] apps," he said. "Once slice does not fit all. This way you can have your cake and eat it too."
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
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