What Exactly Is an Ice Cream Sandwich?

To my great shock, a colleague recently asked, “What is an Ice Cream Sandwich?”. That’s when I realised that this is a topic worth addressing. For those that don’t know: Android versions are named after desserts. In the last year or so we’ve had Froyo (frozen yoghurt), Gingerbread, Honeycomb, and now Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS). Why, you may ask, all these different versions in such a short time? The answer is simple: Apple and the iPad!

Prior to the launch of the iPad, Android was rapidly gaining market share at the expense of the iPhone, evolving nicely with a series of incremental upgrades. The iPad changed the marketplace radically: suddenly there was an entire new class of device to consider. In response Motorola developed the XOOM, the first in a new line-up of tablets. Rather than just porting the then current Android version (Gingerbread) to the XOOM, the Android team developed a completely new version specifically to work with tablets. Honeycomb was born.

Honeycomb was created expressly for tablets and includes some great features, including but not limited to the following:

  • The ability to have multiple active panels on the screen simultaneously
  • Support for drag and drop
  • A high-quality clipboard
  • Improved multi-tasking

Interestingly, whilst Honeycomb is the Android solution for tablets, the majority of tablets are being shipped with some variant of Gingerbread on them. To my mind, this is a great shame as the owners of these devices are missing out on a vastly better user experience.

What then is Ice Cream Sandwich? To me, it is not one but two things: firstly, it is a merging of Android for phones with Android for tablets, and secondly, it brings some great new features and an altogether more mature user-experience for phone and tablet users alike.

Merging the two separate strands (phone and tablet) of Android is a major step forward for the platform. It will benefit users by making the same applications available on both types of devices with potentially very different features and interfaces. Developers should benefit by only having to maintain a single code-base for both device types. It’s probably worth pointing out that there is some pain involved in producing a great application which runs seamlessly on both device formats. I plan to visit that in a future piece.

Many of the “new” features in ICS were actually introduced in the Honeycomb release. ICS makes the new features are available on both phone and tablet. I could spend ages telling you about the great new ICS features, and in a future post I will. For now, here are some of the ones I’ve fallen in love with:

  • Multi-tasking: always a great feature on Android. Now there is a dedicated button which instantly displays a set of thumbnails of the running applications. It sounds trivial but greatly adds to the experience.
  • Fragments: allow the creation of multi-pane user interfaces. The in-built Gmail application is a great example with a list of folders in the left pane and the emails in the right.
  • Action Bar: allows the menu to be displayed across the top of the screen as a row of icons making it much easier to determine available actions within an application.

There are a mass of other great features, many worthy of a piece in their own right.

Ice Cream Sandwich is the latest and greatest version of Android. It offers a superb user experience and a great development platform. I’m so impressed that I’ve switched almost completely to using an ICS tablet as my main computing platform when I’m out of the office. My beautiful HTC phone, indispensable a year ago, has been relegated to being just a device for voice communication. That may all change if and when there is an ICS release for it.

Mike Way

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