Android improving tablet optimization for smartphone apps

Although one of the big knocks on Android tablets has been their relative dearth of tablet-specific apps, that could be about to change.

Google announced today on its Android Developers blog that the next update to Android 3.0 (“Honeycomb”) will give smartphone apps a special button that will let users resize the app specifically for their Android tablets. The button, which will be located on the app’s system bar, will let users zoom in on the application to fill the entire screen.

What makes the zoom capability unique is that it expands the size of the application on the whole tablet screen without losing significant graphical resolution. Scott Main, the lead tech writer for the Android Developers blog, writes that the new zoom technique is a good way for applications to maintain their basic functions without sacrificing too much in the pixilation department.

“Imagine viewing your app at the size of a phone screen then zooming in 200%,” he writes. “The effect is that everything is bigger, but also more pixilated, because the system does not resize your layout or use your alternative resources for the current device.”

Main notes that while the new zoom feature is better than Android 3.0’s standard “stretch to fill screen” function for mobile apps, it is still a second-best alternative to designing apps specifically for Android 3.0. He also advises developers who have designed smartphone apps for larger screens to disable the new zoom capability on their apps because “if your app is actually designed to resize for larger screens, screen compatibility is probably an inferior user experience for your app.”

Fragmentation has long been a problem for Android application developers, who have complained that they have no way of knowing whether the apps they design will work effectively across multiple platforms. To rectify this, Google has been preparing a new version of Android (dubbed “Ice Cream Sandwich”) that will be the first version to unify the multiple versions of its mobile operating system.

Google’s goal in designing Ice Cream Sandwich will be to make an operating system that can adapt to the multiple types of Android devices, whether it’s a smaller-screen phone like the Droid Pro, a large-screen phone like the Droid X or a tablet like the Motorola Xoom. There is no timetable for when Ice Cream Sandwich will be pushed out to Android devices, but it’s likely to come sometime either late this summer or in the fall.

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