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The kind folks at Google decided that your editor was in need of a present for the holidays; soon thereafter, a box containing a Nexus 7 tablet showed up on the doorstep. One might think that the resulting joy might be somewhat mitigated by the fact that your editor has been in possession of an N7 tablet since last July, and one might be right. But the truth of the matter is that the gift was well timed, and not just because it's nice to be able to install ill-advised software distributions on a tablet without depriving oneself of a useful device.
It was not that long ago that a leading-edge tablet device was a fairly big deal. Family members would ask where the tablet was; the house clearly wouldn't contain more than one of them. What followed, inevitably, was an argument over who got to use the household tablet. But tablets are quickly becoming both more powerful and less expensive — a pattern that a few of us have seen in this industry before. We are quickly heading toward a world where tablet devices litter the house like notepads, cheap pens, or the teenager's dirty socks. Tablets are not really special anymore.
They are, however, increasingly useful. Your editor recently purchased a stereo component that locates his music on the network (served by Samba), plays said music through the sound system with a fidelity far exceeding that available from portable music players, and relies on an application running on a handy Android (or iOS) device for its user interface. Every handset and tablet in the house, suddenly, is part of the music system; this has led to a rediscovery of your editor's music collection — a development not universally welcomed by your editor's offspring. Other household devices, thermostats for example, are following the same path. There is no need to attach big control surfaces to household gadgets; those surfaces already exist on kitchen counters and in the residents' pockets.
So the addition of a tablet into a household already containing a few of them is not an unwelcome event; it nicely replaces the one that will eventually be found underneath the couch.
About the time this tablet showed up, the Android 4.2 release came out as an over-the-air update. Some of the features to be found there would seem to have been developed with the ubiquitous tablet very much in mind. At the top of the list, arguably, is the new multiuser support. A new "users" settings screen allows the addition of new users to the device; each user gets their own settings, apps, lock screen, etc. Switching between users is just a matter of selecting one from the lock screen.
Android users are still not as strongly isolated as on a classic Linux system. Apps are shared between them so that, for example, if one user accepts an app update that adds permissions, it takes effect for everybody. The initial user has a sort of mild superuser access; no other users can add or delete users, for example, and the "factory reset" option is only available to the initial account. There doesn't seem to be a way to parcel out privileges to other accounts. The feature works well enough for a common use case: a tablet that floats around the house and is used by multiple family members. Perhaps someday the face unlock feature will recognize the user of the tablet and automatically switch to the correct account.
A feature that is not yet present is the ability to clone one tablet onto another. As we head toward the day when new tablets will arrive as prizes in cereal boxes, we will lose our patience with the quaint process of configuring the new tablet to work like the others do. Google has made significant progress in this area; a lot of useful stuff just appears on a new tablet once the connection to the Google account has been made. But there is still work to do; the process of setting up the K9 mail client is particularly tiresome, for example. And, naturally, storing even more information on the Google mothership is not without its concerns. Wouldn't it be nice to just put the new tablet next to an existing one and say "be like that other one"? The transfer could be effected with no central data storage at all, and life would be much easier.
Much of the infrastructure for this kind of feature appears to already be in place. The near-field communications (NFC) mechanism can be used to "beam" photos, videos, and more between two devices just by touching them together. The "wireless display" feature can be used to transmit screen contents to a nearby television. It should not be hard to do a full backup/restore to another device. Someday. Meanwhile, the "beaming" feature is handy to move photos around without going through the tiresome process of sending them through email.
Another significant new feature is the "swipe" gesture typing facility, whereby one spells words by dragging a finger across the keyboard from one letter to the next. Gesture typing has been available via add-on apps for a while, but now it's a part of the Android core. Using it feels a little silly at the outset; it is like a return to finger painting in elementary-school art class. For added fun, it will attempt to guess which word is coming next, allowing the typing process to be skipped entirely — as long as the guesses turn out to be accurate. In your editor's experience, gesture typing is no faster than tap-typing; if anything, it is a little slower. But the resulting text does seem to be less error-prone; whoever wrote the code doing the gesture recognition did a good job.
One interesting change is that the notification bar at the top has been split into two. The downward-swipe gesture on the left side gives the usual list of notifications — though many of them have been enhanced with actions selectable directly from the notification. On the right side, instead, one gets various settings options. The new scheme takes a while to get used to; it also seems like it takes a more determined effort to get the selected screen to actually stay down rather than teasing the user and popping right back up.
Various other new features exist. The "photo sphere camera" is evidently an extension of the panorama feature found in earlier releases; alas, it refuses to work on the N7's (poor) front-facing camera, so your editor was unable to test it out. The camera also now evidently has high dynamic range (HDR) processing functionality. On the Nexus 10 tablet, the "Renderscript" mechanism can use the GPU for computational tasks; no other device has the requisite hardware support at the moment. There is a screen magnification feature that can be used to zoom any screen regardless of whether the running app was written with that in mind. And so on.
One other change in the 4.2 release is the replacement of the BlueZ-based Bluetooth stack with a totally new stack (called "Bluedroid") from Broadcom. This stack, according to the release notes, "provides improved compatibility and reliability." A message on the android-platform list gives some additional reasons for the change, including the ability to run Bluetooth processes in a separate process, elimination of the D-Bus dependency, and more. The licensing of the new "Bluedroid" stack has raised some questions of its own that have not been clarified as of this writing.
Bluetooth stack questions aside, the obvious conclusion is that the Android platform continues to advance quickly. Each release improves the experience, adds features, and generally cements Android's position as the Linux-based platform for mobile devices. Your editor would still like to see an alternative platform, preferably one that is closer to traditional Linux, but that seems increasingly unlikely as the spread of Android continues unabated and unchallenged. The good news is that Android continues to be (mostly) free software and it continues to improve. This stage of the evolution of the computing industry could easily have taken a highly proprietary turn; thanks to Android, the worst of that has been avoided.
(Thanks to Karim Yaghmour for pointers to the Bluedroid discussion).
Copyright © 2012, Eklektix, Inc.
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