Google announced its latest version of the Android mobile operating system in Hong Kong this week, and in the process might have left more questions than answers. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which runs the Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" operating system, will have new features such as the ability to unlock itself by looking at its owner, take panoramic photos and provide Google+ access in the same way as Gmail is built into current Android devices.
But perhaps more important is that this new OS is designed to bring the two disparate segments of the Android universe into one platform. Currently, phones run Android 2.x as do some tablets. Other tablets run Android 3.x (Honeycomb). Ice Cream Sandwich is aimed at supporting both types of devices.
Right now, ICS only runs on the Galaxy Nexus, but Motorola reports that its just-released Droid RAZR will get an upgrade to Android 4 in a month or two. Or maybe longer. With Android updates, nothing is ever certain until it happens. Sometimes an update clearly will never happen. Honeycomb, for example, will never come to phones because it's designed for tablets.
There's been some criticism of the Nexus because of its slower-than-expected processor speeds and its lower-than-expected camera resolution. This criticism is mostly misplaced. A high-resolution camera that sits behind an optical system that's limited in its capability mostly results in large files that show poor images. Poor image software will make this worse, but even if the image-processing software is perfect, the limitations of lenses in a phone produce limits in image quality. Perhaps Samsung is simply recognizing this limitation.
Some of the new Android 4 features, such as facial recognition, are also of limited usefulness. Despite what you might see on television, really accurate, really fast, facial recognition is a very tough job. I suspect that this is one of those cool features that people mostly won't use because it mostly won't work. While it's easier to create software that can recognize one, and only one, face, it's still unreliable as Google representatives demonstrated during their demo when this feature didn't work.
In reality, the best thing about ICS is that it's supposed to be a unified platform. Device manufacturers and carriers should only have to worry about one software platform that runs on all their devices. This would be nice if it reflected reality.
But the reality is that phone makers and wireless carriers have to support a universe of Android devices ranging from Android 1.x and 2.x on smartphones, Android 2.x on smartphones and some tablets, and Android 3.x on tablets.