Developers sometimes become overly focused on the Android SDK features available in a new release and overlook the new user features made available at the same time. Understanding these user features is important for numerous reasons. Not only do these features directly affect your application’s audience, but they entice new types of users to the platform and often improve upon existing features as well.
In this article, we discuss some of the hottest user features in the latest version(s) of the Honeycomb platform (3.0 and 3.1 thus far) and why developers should know about them.
Android Honeycomb: There’s Still Time to Optimize Your Apps
As of June 1, 2011, only 0.6% of the Android devices accessing the Android Market were running Android 3.0 or higher. This means that despite the fact that Android 3.0 has been out for a couple of months now, developers have not missed the boat. You’ve still got time to look into the unique platform features available in API Levels 11 and 12, and incorporate them into your apps.
There’s some question as to whether existing devices will be upgraded to Honeycomb, or skip straight to Ice Cream Sandwich in the fall. The point here is that Honeycomb is not a divergence in the platform. It’s a pretty safe bet that the powerful features of Honeycomb will be rolled into Ice Cream Sandwich. So, incorporate new Android 3.0 features into your apps now, before the features go mainstream. That way, you will gain an edge on lazy competitors who simply ensure their legacy applications don’t crash on new platform versions. Don’t forget that the compatibility library enables developers to leverage features introduced in Honeycomb onto legacy devices as far back as Android 1.6.
Android Honeycomb: Not Just for Tablets
Although many of the user and developer features of Android 3.0 and Android 3.1 are targeted at making the platform tablet-friendly, do not mistake Honeycomb and its changes as a release solely for tablet devices. It’s not. Many of the developer features of Honeycomb, like fragments, action bars, a new animation framework, and improved hardware acceleration and graphics APIs, can be leveraged by all applications. If you’ve traditionally developed smartphone apps and plan to target a broad range of Android devices in the future, you should consider Honeycomb features to help “future-proof” your apps.
Android 3.0’s Hottest User Features
Android 3.0 introduced a lot of what we like to call “chrome”: pretty, smooth, feature-full UI components. Much of the UI overhaul targets efficiency and usability–things critics have claimed the Android platform lacks compared to some of its more established competitors.
Let’s explore some of Honeycomb’s hottest user features, from the view of the developer.
- Instead of a static title bar, there is now an Action Bar at the top of the screen, which identifies the app. Each application can customize the Action Bar for its own purposes. The Action Bar can be used for in-app navigation and provides a launch point for contextual menus.
- Some of the newest Honeycomb devices do not have the physical hardware buttons for things like Home, Back, Menu and Search. Instead, Back and Home are integrated into the UI in what is called the System Bar; Menu is moved up to the Action Bar (but only when appropriate). A dedicated search button is no longer available, though Search can be added to the Action Bar as well.
- In terms of input, there’s a new system-wide clipboard, which enables users to copy and paste text content. Check out the Clipboard Framework for more info.
- Users are already familiar with drag-and-drop operations on their Home Screen. Now apps can implement similar features using the new Drag and Drop Framework.
- The default software keyboard has been redesigned for improved user input. Several new keys have been added. If you were using special IMEs to provide features above and beyond the default software keyboard in your apps, it’s a good time to review the built-in options again.
You can find a comprehensive description of the user feature highlights for Android 3.0 at the Android Developer website.
Android 3.1’s Hottest User Features
Android 3.1 was a minor Honeycomb release that featured a number of bug fixes as well as usability refinements and performance improvements to the new user interface introduced in Android 3.0. This means you’re better off reviewing the new user experience on a device running Android 3.1 with the latest updates.
- Perhaps Android 3.1’s biggest new feature, both from a user and developer perspective, is broad support for USB devices and accessories. Users can now easily connect a mouse, keyboard, game controller/pad and other pieces of USB gadgetry to their Android device. The great news for app developers is that these features are accessible within the Android Framework as part of the new USB Host and Accessory APIs.
- One new Home Screen feature we immediately fell in love with is the ability to resize App Widgets. Developers with existing App Widgets should jump on this opportunity to make their data feature even more prominently in the Home Screen’s high-impact real estate.
- Many of the preloaded Android apps, like the Browser, Camera, Gallery, Email, Contacts, and Calendar received a make-over for Android 3.0/3.1. If your applications integrate with these apps, as many do, you’ll want to ensure that your application still plays nicely with these new versions.
You can find a comprehensive description of the user feature highlights for Android 3.1 at the Android Developer website.
Reviewing the user features can also give you hints as to the newest developer features you might not be leveraging because they aren’t on your radar when your head is down and coding. Whether you’re writing apps that target tablets or not, spend a little time reviewing the user and developer features available on the Honeycomb platform. You’ve got a lot of new opportunities to integrate closely with the platform, through improved app widgets, action bars, and many other new user features.