Google's Honeycomb is sweet

February 2, 2011: 3:37 PM ET

Honeycomb, or Android 3.0, is a big, impressive step toward the unified, mobile world that Google is trying to bring to us. But rest assured that Apple will give Google some stiff competition with its own upgrades.

With images of blue and black-striped bees leading the way through its Mountainview, Calif. headquarters, on Wednesday Google  gave a deep-dive into Honeycomb, a tablet-ready version of the Android operating sysem it hopes can beat back Apple's iOS and the iPad.

Apple (AAPL) has taken a stranglehold on the fast-growing tablet market with its iPad, selling almost 15 million since it hit the  market last year and commanding the vast majority of sales. With Microsoft (MSFT) dragging its feet in the tablet market, hardware makers, ranging from Motorola (MMI) to Samsung and LG (essentially everyone but Apple and Hewlett Packard (HPQ) with its webOS ) are relying on Google (GOOG) to deliver a new operating system for tablets that can compete.

To date, all the Android tablets that have shipped have used a slightly modified version of the operating system found in a typical Android smartphone. They look and act like stretched out versions of  a handset, which, of course, is not what you want. Honeycomb, the greatest overhaul to the Android OS since its launch, changes that.

Google, along with its partner Motorola, which is bringing the Xoom tablet to market in the next month or two, has shown off Honeycomb before. But what we got to see a month ago at the Consumer Electronics Show was  mostly canned videos. On Wednesday, Google took Honeycomb out of the can, and it's impressive.

For Android users Honeycomb is immediately recognizable, but fortunately not too similar. Matias Duarte, who heads up the user interface team on Android, stressed that he and his team tried to make Honeycomb combine the best of mobile with some of the features you might find on a notebook or desktop.

For example,  you can populate the home screen with a series of "widgets. It might be Gmail, or your music collection, maybe electronic books.  You can interact with any of the applications via a small version on the screen, swapping them in and out with the touch of a finger. Tap on the Gmail application and it fills the screen, adjusting the view and the information depending on whether it is in portrait or landscape.

Simple, but it's a great example of how the Android team has done a very good job of exploiting multi-touch, the additional real estate of a tablet, and the greater brawn of the hardware and the processors inside to offer a unique experience. Transitions are slick, 3D graphics look good, and the gaming experience looks fantastic. In practice, the Xoom tablet, which was offered up for demos after the presentation, is fast, touch is accurate, and the screen looked bright and very crisp. No, it's not available yet, but the Motorola gang says they are sticking to their Q1 launch date.

Will you want one, which is to say, will the Xoom and other Honeycomb devices to come compete with the iPad? The answer is yes. In the same way that Android-powered smartphones have offered up real competition to the iPhone, tablets running Honeycomb will too -- you can bet on that. If you are a diehard Google services user (chat, email, calendar, YouTube), just as with with Android smartphones, all things Google work flawlessly on Honeycomb.

Andy Rubin, the head robot at Android, stressed that Google's goal is to make it easy to access all their services via the cloud no matter what device you choose. Everything should be synced, and the OS designed to work best with the phone/tablet/or notebook that you happen to have in your hand. Android will be the mobile OS running across all the gadgets (where Chrome fits in is another matter). Honeycomb is a big step toward that unified, mobile world that Google is trying to bring to us. And many of the features in this versions of Android will eventually make their way into the smartphone OS.

Is it competition for Apple and its iOS? It sure is. But will Apple have a response (iPad 2 plus upgrades to iOs)? Of course, it always does.

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About This Author
Michael Copeland
Michael Copeland

Michael V. Copeland joined FORTUNE as a senior writer in September 2007. Copeland has covered everything from electric cars to e-readers. He is a creator of Tech Mate, an irreverent video series in which he debates (and skewers) digital issues of the day. Before joining FORTUNE, Copeland was a senior writer at Business 2.0. Copeland graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.

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