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Google (news, site) today unveiled the third version of its Android OS, a product specifically aimed at producing a credible rival to the iPad.

Rise of the Android Army

Honeycomb sounds so much nicer than Android 3.0, but now that it has been officially launched, it's the later name we have to use for Google's mobile OS. To highlight the coming rash of Android-powered tablets, most of the demonstrations at Google's launch (which just wrapped up -- you can catch up on YouTube) were run on the larger devices to demonstrate the new, big-screen-friendly, features.

The interface features some neat 3D tricks with panes lined up behind each other for rapid access. The new systems bar offers rapid access to notifications and system updates plus shortcuts to recent apps and other useful links to help multitasking. There is also lots of space on the desktop to avoid that cramped feeling you can get with Apple's screens.

Among the demonstrations were Android phone apps running scaled-up on tablet devices, a Facetime-like video chat (shown off by a rather spotty chat with Ceelo Green) and demos from several app developers (with some 50 developers promised to be in attendance at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona).

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Big Screens Need Big Content

To show off the tablet potential, Google had Electronic Arts demonstrating some slick looking games including racer Midtown Madness and strategy title, Total War. CNN was there showing off an early version of its free news app that will be launched soon with interactive journalism features so users can contribute to stories happening near them.

Disney made an appearance showing off some of its apps with the new in-app purchase abilities and mentioned only having got the latest code five days ago. So, you can see how fresh out of the oven this latest update is and why it may take some time before we start seeing wider support for it. Perhaps, just as well, as new devices or updates for existing devices may take some time.

Still Catching Up With iOS?

A lot of the other new features are really just catching up with Apple, both in interface and store technology, for example: 

  • In-App purchases -- Developers will soon be able to sell extra content, game levels, features within an application with the payment coming directly from the user without having to leave the application.
  • App Market Web Store -- Download apps through your PC browser rather than directly to the device.
  • Currency support -- App developers can price their product in one currency and have it automatically converted to others when buyers check out the app around the world. This will be rolled out in the coming weeks and months.

There was no new hardware on show, that will be up to the makers, as covered in previous articles, but from this showing it will take a lot of slick hardware to make a dent in people's perception of Apple as the leading mobile interface brand. 

Still, aside from the launch device Motorola Xoom (around US$ 700-800) we can expect many cheaper and more widespread devices, so Android tablets could soon dominate market share and this OS will help users have a fun, flashy experience with their devices. What could hold Android back depends on how far Apple can keep ahead. Over to the iPad 2, coming soon.

UPDATE - Google has confirmed that Honeycomb is for tablet devices only and will not ship in smartphones. The confusion was caused by Google showing smartphones during the event.