Ice Cream Sandwich, or ICS for short, is the latest update to the Android operating system. Android's major updates all have dessert code names starting in alphabetical order, starting with Cupcake (the letters A and B were never used). ICS is Android 4.0, and this release brings a lot of interface changes to what is now a maturing mobile platform.
Tablet and Mobile Interfaces Unite
One of the big intents for ICS is that it brings elements of Honeycomb, the tablet version of Android, into the phone OS. Ice Cream Sandwich uses the same button-less design of Honeycomb. Instead of a series of physical buttons on the screen, there are software buttons that stay on the bottom left corner of the screen and follow the user as you tilt the phone in different directions. ICS is also bringing re-sizable widgets to the phone, no Motorola Blur interface required.
Behind the scenes, ICS also provides developers a more graceful way to program once for multiple screen sizes. That makes it easier to develop apps that look good on a tablet or a phone with many different possible screen sizes.
This version also includes support for a larger variety of hardware, including stylus pens. There's also an interesting accessibility feature to allow visually impaired users to navigate by touch using haptic feedback.
Changes in Appearance and Interface
Google used to shy away from graphic design, but they've thankfully rethought that position. ICS uses a new typeface, Robota, a thin, stylish sans-serif designed to look good on mobile devices. There's also a new look and feel to most screens. Gone is the ghastly green of Gingerbread, and now there's a blue look to the top screen and the clean new font in white.
There's a change to the overall user interface, too. You can now use Honeycomb's easier multitasking to switch between running apps.You can also dismiss alerts one at a time if you choose, so you don't forget that you've got an unanswered email. You can also quickly text a reply to an incoming call without having to unlock the screen. You pick from a list of messages, one of which is probably "I'm in a meeting, I forgot to turn off my ringer, and you totally just embarrassed me by calling right now." Well, maybe not phrased that way, but something along those lines.
The Contacts app is now renamed the People app designed for integrating profile data between apps and social networks.
ICS is packed with many cool new features. Instead of using a pin or password to lock your phone, you can use face recognition. That's very cool, but it actually failed in the demo, so hopefully there's a backup plan when the lights are dim or something else interferes with the camera.
ICS now has data usage built into the phone. Not only can you tell how much data you've used, you can arrange for the data to shut off when you've reached your limit. You can also set up data management strategies like you would power management. This will come in very handy for anyone who has a limit on the amount of data that comes with their phone plan.
The Nexus S came with NFC, and Google has been working on Google Wallet and other ways to use NFC features. Now you can use the NFC to tap and share items with other users who also have NFC chips. This is like the Bump app or the old Palm beaming system, only easier to use - when you have compatible devices.
Not only can you use the new face unlock feature, you can also do more video and still picture editing from your phone or device. This makes it even easier to carry the camera on your phone as the only camera you need to keep with you. You can now drop out the background behind you or add live fun-house like effects to video while chatting over Google Talk. Yes, iOS users have been able to do this for a while, but now Android users can, too.
There's also built-in support for making panorama pictures, and the Gallery app has been redesigned. Also a big win for those of us who write about Android, you can take screen shots directly from your phone and then send them to a device later. Hooray! In case you don't know why this is a big deal, here are the steps to take screenshots from Android right now.
Security and Connectivity
These are some features that don't mean anything to the average user, but they do mean something when you use an app that takes advantage of it. ICS adds better support for VPN, more Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity options, and the ability for the camera to be shut off remotely. VPN and remote camera management are designed to help get Android in the hands of business users.
Android 4.0 enhances Exchange email by now supporting folders and more standards for enterprise. There's also better auto-completion for recipients, and there's a new quick reply feature to let you avoid tapping out a huge reply when you mean to say something like "I'm checking this from my phone, but I'll get back to you with a longer response later." The calendar integrates Exchange and Google Calendar dates as it did before, but it also allows other apps to include data on the calendar. It finally uses a swipe left to right gesture for switching between months and days. Gingerbread and previous versions used an up and down swiping gesture that's still confusing after years of Android use.
ICS also offers better spell correction and a new mode for taking longer dictation that highlights possible spelling errors. The Web browser also has a handy feature to request the desktop version of websites.
Overall, these are some fantastic improvements. Don't expect them on your phone anytime soon. The Galaxy Nexus will ship with ICS, but other phones may not get the upgrade for quite some time, if ever. It remains to be seen whether manufactures still feel compelled to put a custom user interface on top of Android or whether they'll innovate through compelling hardware design and optional apps. Don't hold your breath.