A Taste of Android’s Freshly Baked Eclair

When the Verizon Droid from Motorola arrives next month, it will include a new version of the Android Operating system. Android 2.0, also known as “Eclair,” will no doubt show up in lots of other new smartphones over the coming months.

Android 2.0 ushers in a host of new features. Perhaps the one that sparks the most interest is its native support for Microsoft Exchange.

“Native support for Exchange will appeal to traditional BlackBerry users that want to access their work email,” Chris Hazelton, a research director at the 451 Group, told LinuxInsider.

“Native Exchange support should help make Android 2.0 more corporate-friendly,” said Al Hilwa, program director of application development software at IDC. Its GPS and enhanced Google Maps features are also important because they may enable a new genre of location-aware applications, Hilwa told LinuxInsider.

Android 2.0’s underlying interface navigation structure is the pick of Ken Dulaney, Gartner VP and Distinguished Analyst. “They have really thought about how you navigate through applications on the phone,” he told LinuxInsider.

Another new feature is multiple account support — developers can add multiple accounts to a device for e-mail and contact synchronization. These include Exchange accounts.

Android 2.0 lets users search for all saved SMS and MMS messages. It auto-deletes the oldest messages in a conversation. It has an upgraded browser with support for HTML 5. It also has geolocation API support. This API will provide information about the location of the device it is running on.

Lots of New APIs

Android 2.0 also has new platform technologies. Its graphics architecture has been revamped for better hardware acceleration; it supports Bluetooth 2.1; and it includes several new developer APIs.

One is an updated version of the framework API, which includes an integer identifier — the number 5 — that is stored in the system. Developers who want to use Android 2.0 APIs in their applications need to set the value 5 in the attributes of the “Uses SDK” element in their applications’ manifests.

Other new APIs include one for Bluetooth, a sync adapter, an account manager, an API for contacts and a new thumbnail API.

New application framework APIs include new system themes; new service APIs to help applications correctly handle service life-cycle; MotionEvent, which can now report simultaneous-touch information for devices that support it; and new Intent APIs that broadcast the docking state of the device and let applications launch special activities when the device is placed in a desktop or car dock.

Reworking Current Apps

Developers may need to rework apps for earlier versions of Android — version 2.0 is designed for devices that use virtual keys for the “Home;” “Back;” “Menu” and “Search” commands.

Exactly ow much they will have to rework is not yet clear. “It will depend on the degree to which they need to take advantage of new capabilities,” IDC’s Hilwa said. Whether or not existing Android devices can be updated will depend on the device, he added.

“There is no guarantee that apps written for previous versions of Android will work perfectly with Android 2.0, or at all, as the OS adds new capabilities and APIs,” the 451 Group’s Hazelton said. “Developers will need to adjust their application code to keep up.”

The Android SDK now supports Version 2.0, SDK tech lead Xavier Ducrohet announced in the Android developer blog. Current developers can use the SDK Manager to add Android 2.0 support to their SDK as well as update their SDK Tools to revision 3.

Android SDK Tools revision 3 is required to develop for Android 2.0, Ducrohet said. It includes support for code coverage through the Ant build system, as well as Mac OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard) support for the SDK and related tools.

New developers can download the Android SDK from the download site, Ducrohet said. After the download, Android platforms must be added using the SDK Manager

Developers who use Eclipse can access ADT version 0.9.4, which Google is releasing through the usual Eclipse update mechanism, Ducrohet said.

Possible Problems

Existing Android devices will have access to Android 2.0, but it’s up to the various carriers and handset manufacturers to perform the upgrades, Google spokesperson Katie Watson told LinuxInsider. “Because Android is open source, devices can continuously improve over time,” she said.

Handing over the choice to carriers and handset manufacturers could fragment the Android market. “The problem with Android in that much of what surfaces of the functionality is, at the end of the day, up to the device maker or the carrier,” IDC’s Hilwa said. “It’s up to users to determine from their carriers what exact features their device can leverage or whether it can use the new version of the OS. The Android world is more ‘I Can’ than ‘I Do,’ and that’s where it differs from the iPhone world.”

Android’s open source roots may be another source of problems. “There will be fragmentation in the Android platform as there is in any open source platform,” Gartner’s Dulaney said.

That could cost Google in the race for apps, which are one of the main drawing points for smartphones. “Since device vendors support different versions of Android at the same time — some are still using versions 1.5 or 1 while Motorola and HTC are using version 2.0 — developers may not support every release of Android,” the 451 Group’s Hazelton pointed out. “They will have to bet which versions of the OS have the greatest market penetration.”

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