Ina Fried

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Drippings from the Honeycomb: Google’s Barra on the iPad, Android In-App Purchasing and More

While Google had lots of nice things to say during its presentation on Honeycomb on Wednesday, there were also lots of questions that got raised but were not necessarily answered.

Following the event–and a brief hands-on demo of Honeycomb–Mobilized and a few other reporters cornered Google exec Hugo Barra and pressed him on some of these issues, including just how big a dent he thinks that Android tablets can make on the huge lead established by Apple with the iPad.

“It’s hard to say,” he said. “We’ve put our best foot forward. Now it’s up to the ecosystem to make it flourish.”

However, he noted that hardware makers are eager to have a more competitive product to counter Apple’s tablet. “We think that (device makers) are incredibly motivated,” he said.

Motorola, which worked closely with Google on the development of Honeycomb, is due to be the first out with the Xoom, which will ship later in the first quarter. T-Mobile hopes to have its first Honeycomb tablet, the 3-D-capable G-Slate, out later this spring.

On the topic of the Android market, Barra said that the combination of a new Web-based store and the addition of in-app purchasing were key moves in improving Google’s app sales experience–a process that even Google has had trouble executing. The Web store, he said, will work on any modern computer browser and allows developers to much better highlight products and users to much more easily find what they are looking for.

“We think this is a significant step toward a better market experience,” Barra said. “There’s more to do to make it a frictionless discovery and purchase experience.” He noted that the company is also working to add carrier billing more broadly, among other payment options. The in-app buying option, in particular, is a great addition that allows for more types of business models, he said. (Not to mention it’s something that Apple has had for a while now).

However, Barra added that, unlike with Apple, Google is not going to mandate that developers use its in-app buying option. “Android is an open platform,” he said. Developers can do whatever they want. That’s the beauty of an open platform.”

Of course, one of the downsides of openness is the potential for fragmentation, a concern frequently raised with Android. That issue was heightened somewhat with the release of Honeycomb, since it introduced features that, for now anyway, are only available on tablets and not on phones.

Barra said that some of those features would be making their way back to the phone, but wouldn’t offer specifics on timing.

“A lot of the things we have created for Honeycomb will make their way back into phones as well–things like the visual themes, some of the thinking on notifications, for example.”

Just how that re-integration will occur is unclear, though. Honeycomb is Android 3.0, but for now it is going to run only on tablets and other big-screen devices. Asked whether there will be a version 3.-something for phones, and when those features would come to the phone, Barra said it’s too soon to say. “We really don’t know,” he said. “That’s a conversation we are just beginning to have right now internally with the team.”

In any case, developers seemed largely pleased with Wednesday’s developments.

“We’re very excited about the ability to do in-app purchases in Honeycomb,” said William Hurley, CTO of mobile developer Chaotic Moon Studios. “It opens a whole new world of possibilites from both a design and revenue perspective.”

Casual-game maker Zynga, which counts on in-app sales of virtual goods in its business model, also praised the move as a huge win for the Android platform.

“It’s massive for us,” Zynga’s Paul Bettner told Mobilized on Wednesday.

As for what Google showed off with Honeycomb, Hurley said it should help Google and Android app developers close the gap with the experience on Apple’s products. “Many of the features announced today will empower the development community to produce apps that are better positioned to compete with apps available on other platforms,” he said.

Here’s a very brief video of Bettner and a colleague showing off Words With Friends, as customized for Honeycomb.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus