Google only scratched the surface with the latest improvements to its Android mobile operating system. Users have been left wanting more, and they are likely to get it in 2012.
Better graphics, better cameras, and maybe even a voice-command feature similar to Siri--bundled with the latest iteration of Apple's iOS operating system--could be on the horizon for Internet search leader Google.
Android's latest big update, Android 4.0, also known as Ice Cream Sandwich, is coming with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, and it's only a matter of time before other smartphones and tablets begin seeing the update.
But even as fresh as Ice Cream Sandwich is, users are looking ahead. Android is already installed on tons of smartphones across countless wireless carriers, and that reach is sure to expand with each new update.
Here's what to expect for the little green robot in 2012.
Doing More With Voice
Siri brought voice commands to the masses, and you can bet that Google is working on something similar for Android.
Ice Cream Sandwich already allows for instant speech to text, and voice commands have been a part of the OS since Android 2.0, but they lack some of the personal charms that Apple has given its voice-activated virtual assistant.
While we shouldn't expect a snarky secretary like Siri, we can look forward to Google incorporating voice functions into more of its apps. A great example of this is the new Google Translate app. It has a conversation mode that allows you to translate your speech and the speech of others into one of more than 50 different languages. It's by no means perfect, but it gives us a good idea of how Google can use voice input to make even better apps.
Better Camera Software
When it came to mobile cameras, the stock Android camera software was hardly something to brag about. It was clunky, slow, and had only a few basic settings you could really customize.
Ice Cream Sandwich gave the software a much-needed update, introducing features like panoramic photos and zero lag between snapshots. Future Android updates could include face detection and more-advanced settings for experienced shutterbugs. But those camera improvements wouldn’t just be for phones. Tablets that use video chat would gain better focus and video quality, especially as we begin to see more tablets that run over 4G and LTE networks.
More Apps That Take Advantage of Hardware Acceleration
We've recently seen more phones with dual-core processors, but unfortunately not all apps have been optimized to take advantage of the extra processing power. Starting with Ice Cream Sandwich, however, hardware acceleration is enabled by default, meaning that new apps released on the OS will run smoother and games will look better than their predecessors. Older apps will have to be updated to see a boost in performance, and how an app behaves on a dual-core versus a single-core device will be noticeably different.
At Google I/O 2011 (an annual developer conference), Google launched the Android@Home project, a framework for Android to be installed into automated "smart" houses. These Android smart houses would communicate with other Android-powered gadgets to make life easier for the people inside.
Some car manufacturers are even looking into Android to power the media consoles in their vehicles and to do things like media sharing from phones to the car. If it has a chip in it, chances are someone will try to install Android into it.
Android overlays are no big deal as long as they don't get in the way of the Android experience.
Overlays can add a lot of functionality--such as what we saw on Honeycomb tablets--but on phones, most of them are clunky and resource-heavy. With Ice Cream Sandwich incorporating a ton of useful features that were previously seen only on HTC and Samsung devices, overlays are slowly being toned down.
A good example: Motorola's MotoBlur overlay. Once an overwhelming and visually assaulting UI, the MotoBlur overlay has been greatly reduced to a lightweight skin that blends in relatively well with the stock Android UI.
A More Complete Shopping Experience
When it comes to media, iOS is the reigning king.
The iTunes store has not only apps and music, but also movies, TV shows, and even books. With the launch of Google Music, Google is trying to create a similar ecosystem for Android.
The Android Market is steadily becoming the one-stop shop for all Android-related media. You can currently rent movies from the Android Market, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see TV shows and podcasts also make their way to the Google-run store. Once Google adds those to its Android Market lineup, Android will become a much stronger contender in the mobile media-player space.
Next: Jelly Bean?
Expect at least two updates to Android in 2012.
One will most likely be an incremental update to Android 4.0, but some observers expect another major update to the Android OS as well. Reportedly named "Jelly Bean," some people are already calling this next iteration of Android a "game changer."
While details so far are slim, it is quite likely that Jelly Bean will contain one or more of the features described here.