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Mountain View mulls Android tablet v phone dilemma

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Google's "Honeycomb" incarnation of Android will run only on tablets, and not on smartphones. Or so it seems.

Wednesday morning, at a press event inside Google headquarters, when asked if Honeycomb would run on phones as well as tablets, Google director of products for mobile Hugo Barra said: "As we continue to think about the evolution of Android, we will take some of the innovations from Honeycomb and think about how they apply to phones." And he said much the same thing several times.

Pressed on the this, he remained coy. "Android today is available for large-screen tablet-sized devices," he said. Asked about phone support, he said the company has not decided on specifics. "We don't know. That's a conversation we're having right now".

But earlier in the day, Barra did say that Honeycomb would run all applications built for previous handset versions of Android.

According to Google, Honeycomb is also designed so that developers can easily build applications for both tablets and phones. Earlier in the day, Barra demonstrated something Google calls "application fragments", which underpins a new version of Gmail set to arrive on Honeycomb. On the new Gmail, these enable a user to drag and drop messages between folders.

"We're giving developers tools for making applications optimized for tablets as well as tools for designing an app that works for both," Barra told us after the demo. "We talked about 'fragments'. Fragments are a design construct with the fundamental requirement, if you will, of screen-size independence. We're thinking about designing apps for any screen size."

Fragments may not be the best moniker. Barra was asked whether Honeycomb would worsen the dreaded Android fragmentation issue, in which applications run on some devices not others. But he said the problem doesn't even exist now. "I really don't think it does [worsen things]. There are no compatibility issues you can point to today. You can argue about hardware legacy, which any platform deals with, but there are no compatibility issues as far applications are concerned."

Asked to describe the thinking behind Honeycomb, he said: "What we've done here is that we've taken all of the things we've done so far with Android and we've rethought them in the context of larger touch screen. In some cases, we've sort of brought [existing tools] along. In other cases, we've completely rethought things. The way the home screen works, for instance, has been rethought. The way notifications and widgets work has been extended."

In December, Google released Android version 2.3, codenamed Gingerbread, for handsets; around the same time, the company publicly confirmed the existence of Honeycomb, aka Android 3.0. Honeycomb has not been announced – despite the hour-and-a-half production Google put on this morning for the Silicon Valley press. Barra would not be drawn out about when the OS would officially launch, repeating pointing reporters back to the OEMs building Honeycomb tablets.

When The Reg asked Barra how closely Google was working with hardware manufacturers, and who it was working with, he indicated that company is working quite closely with Motorola, whose as-yet-unreleased Xoom tablet was demonstrated at Wednesday morning's event.

Barra played his cards quite close to his chest, even for a Googler. Asked what processors the platform would run on, he declined to say. Android was originally build for ARM, but Google has ported it to Intel's Atom chip as part of its television-happy Google TV project, which pairs Android with the company's Chrome browser.

And, no, he wouldn't be drawn on whether Honeycomb tools would be moved to Google TV.

Barra did confirm that with official Android phones – i.e., phones that meet Google's requirements and ship with the Android Market client – Google maintains a persistant connection to the device that lets it install applications. Today, the company also introduced a web-based version of the Android Market, which lets you remotely install apps on your handset. As previously revealed, the company also has a "kill switch" for removing apps from user phones, but Barra declined to discuss this.

He did discuss the INSTALL_ASSET tool that lets the company remotely load applications, but only briefly. "[The persistent connection] uses the notification framework we announced last year at Google I/O," he told The Reg, referring to the company's annual developer conference. "So it's the same framework that's used for pushing emails or IMs."

Last month, Google released a "preview" Honeycomb SDK, and Barra said the company intends to release a completed kit "in the next few weeks." Later in the conversation, he said it would come "soon," but declined to be more specific. ®

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