Google has taken the wraps off the next version of its Android operating system, known as Jelly Bean, which adds improvements to search, voice typing and notifications.
Jelly Bean, also known as Android 4.1, will be the successor to the current Ice Cream Sandwich version of Android, and will start to be pushed out to some Android phones next month, Google said at its I/O conference for developers Wednesday in San Francisco.
A significant new feature is Google Now, which uses a person’s location, search history and calendar entries to offer more pertinent search results, Google said. Google Now appears to basically turn Android into a personal assistant for a user’s life.
For example, Google Now learns roughly when a person commutes to work and what route they take. It will then check traffic reports each morning and recommend a faster route when there’s one available.
When a user is near a bus stop or train station, Google Now will tell users what time the next bus or train is arriving. And if a user searches for a flight, Google will remember that and push out notifications if the flight is delayed.
Google Now can show information about what restaurants and bars are nearby as a user walks down a street. And in a restaurant, it will even recommend what the most popular dishes are.
Google didn’t go into a lot of detail about how it works; presumably it uses information from existing online services such as restaurant reviews. Allowing Google Now to access a person’s location, search and calendar entries is optional, Google executives stressed, but it’s bound to make some users concerned about privacy.
Jelly Bean is Google’s attempt to continue the momentum behind Android. The OS had been activated in 100 million devices at this time last year; now the figure is up to 400 million, Google said. A million new Android devices are activated each day, it said, or 12 per second.
Jelly Bean also improves the voice typing function in Android, which lets users type messages and perform searches by speaking into the phone. In Ice Cream Sandwich, voice typing works only when users are online, but for Jelly Bean, Google “shrank” the speech recognition software that runs on the servers in its data center, so that it will fit into the device itself. So users will be able to type using their voice when they’re offline.
Offline voice typing will be available initially for U.S. English and will be offered in other languages “soon” according to Google.
Google has improved the Android Beam function in Ice Cream Sandwich. The existing version lets users share data such as contact information by knocking two phones together, assuming they have NFC (near-field communications) capability. In Jelly Bean, that’s extended to let them exchange photos and videos, and users will also be able to connect their smartphone to an external device such as a speaker by tapping the phone against it.
Jelly Bean also has better notifications, so that users won’t have to open separate applications to act on those notifications. If an email notification pops up, for instance, the user can view the email from within the notification instead of opening the Gmail app. They can also return calls from within a missed call notification.
Other improvements include increasing the display rate to 60 frames per second, so opening applications and refreshing the screen appear smoother. And the touch interface has been made faster and more responsive, according to Google.
The new OS also adds new input languages — Urdu, Hindi and Thai. And it can connect to external braille devices via Bluetooth.
To help developers improve application performance, Google created a new “systrace” tool that collects performance data from within the the Linux kernel. It will help developers iron out glitches in their apps, by allowing them to correlate dropped frames with a database interruption, for instance.
Jelly Bean will be pushed out to the Motorola Xoom and other devices starting in July, Google said. It’s also making a software developer kit available now to developers, from developer.android.com, and it created a new Platform Developer Kit for hardware makers who implement the OS.
James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org