Ina Fried

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Exclusive: Google’s Android Design Expert Outlines the Vision Behind Honeycomb

Although the immediate focus of Honeycomb was to get Android ready for tablets, the operating system is really designed to enable Google’s software to power all manner of mobile devices.

“Tablet was the focus, but the changes we did also free it up to be more flexible for other contexts as well,” Honeycomb lead designer Matias Duarte told Mobilized. “It’s about really eliminating all the barriers to all the different kinds of form factors that people might want to interact with.”

Google plans to show off its work with Honeycomb, also known as Android 3.0, at an event on Wednesday. There, it will talk about the specific changes it has made, as well as the vision behind the shift.

Duarte, who joined Google from Palm last year, said there were really three major areas of focus. Clearly one was to change the way Android worked so that it was suited to devices larger than a phone. But beyond that, Duarte said, Honeycomb was about evolving Android to be better overall at mobile computing tasks. Finally, Duarte said, Honeycomb is designed to make the operating system more usable.

“All of those are works in progress,” he said. “Our work is far from done in any of those.”

One of the most notable changes in Honeycomb is the fact that it no longer has a reliance on physical hardware buttons. That paves the way for all kinds of devices, Duarte said.

“Some of them might look more like a laptop…some of them might not even have soft buttons,” Duarte said. “They might be purely gesturally driven.”

The first Honeycomb devices, however, will all be tablets, starting with the Motorola Xoom, which is headed to Verizon in February.

But, if he has done his job right, Duarte said that hardware makers will be able to create devices that Google never even contemplated. “Whatever they come up with, the most important thing is that we have given that flexibility.”

That could range to attaching Android to a refrigerator or creating products aimed at a specific demographic, such as young kids or the elderly. Heck, someone could even use Android to build a big table computer to take on Microsoft’s Surface. “I can’t see why not,” Duarte said. “I can imagine that.”

As for the potential tablets in particular, Duarte notes that those who initially brushed aside Apple’s iPad when it debuted a year ago underestimated the impact of what Apple did in bringing the multi-touch screen to a larger-size device.

“I think those skeptics were short-sighted,” Duarte said. “That’s the genius of what Apple achieved with that iPad.”

The tablet experience, he said, is largely about the touch interface, which changes people’s relationship with the content they are viewing. In moving the content into a closer and more comfortable position, people relate more and have more emotional experiences, he said.

“People have seen screens that size and have been taking screens that size to bed with them and to their coffee shops with them. They’ve been sitting with them hunched over and in all kinds of contorted positions” Duarte said. “But having that touch interface means that you can interact with the Internet or with a book or with a video player in a totally different posture, in a totally different way. It changes how you engage with the content, how long you engage with the content and even how emotionally close you are to it.”

With Honeycomb, Duarte said, he wanted to make sure that Google was opening Android up to enable those kinds of experiences, but also improving the underpinnings of the operating system to be a more powerful computing experience.

One of the changes, he said, is recognizing that people use tablets differently than they use their phone, even if they are running many of the same types of programs.

“It used to be that Android was something that you held in your hand and you would use in these relatively fine slices of time throughout the day, and then when you sit down at a table or a desk or you go home, that Android stays in your pocket or goes in a charger,” he said. “Now your experience with Android is alternating between these fine slices and these longer periods….So we need to think of Android as an experience that you have 24/7, throughout the entire day. What that means is that you are doing a lot more and you are doing a lot more for longer periods of time.”

That shift, he said, means that the operating system needs to do a better job of shifting between tasks and notifying users of what things are going on in the background. With Honeycomb, Duarte said, Google is improving its recent application switching feature that lets users easily see the places they have been working and point to them, while at the same time getting better notifications from background activities without being constantly interrupted.

Duarte characterized Honeycomb as the biggest change since the debut of Android, but it is also the latest in a series of updates that have come in rapid succession. In many cases, both device makers and wireless carriers have struggled to keep pace with Google, often failing to allow their devices to stay updated with Google’s latest and greatest, even if the phones themselves were capable of being upgraded.

But while others wonder whether Google is moving too quickly in evolving Android, Duarte said he wonders why the rest of the industry is moving so slowly, and promises even faster change to come.

“Using computers suck, to this day,” Duarte said. “It’s one of my daily frustrations that the rate of change in computing experiences is so slow.”

In particular, Duarte said that the basic interaction with programs and files hasn’t changed much. “It’s the same way I did [things] in high school on a Mac Plus.”

One piece of that shift, Durate said, is evolving our expectations of computing devices from a world in which computer users put in information and turn a crank to get a result to one that more resembles an ongoing dialogue.

“What I am looking for is that sense that you get when jazz musicians improvise together,” he said. “The computer should be doing things in concert with you, in support [of] you, not acting like a servant waiting for commands and then returning with results. That’s a little aspirational, I know.”

Honeycomb will get the company partway to that vision, but Duarte said much of that work will reveal itself over time. But make no mistake, he said–although they don’t appear to be the stuff of science fiction, computers are starting to become extensions of the human brain.

“People always think of cybernetics with computers as being this thing that happens far in the future, and you have Star Trek, Borg-like scary things” Duarte said. “But the way computers are used today through social networking, through email, through accessing information like Google–they are already becoming [those] cybernetic parts of our mind.”