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Ask Maggie: Google's Ice Cream Sandwich and what it means

In this week's column, I explain some of the benefits of Google's coming upgrade for the Android OS: Ice Cream Sandwich.

By the end of this year, users of Google Android smartphones should be able to sink their teeth into the next version of Android OS: Ice Cream Sandwich. But what does this upgrade really mean for smartphone users?

I was at the Google I/O developer conference this week in San Francisco, where Google announced a brand new OS upgrade for its Android mobile platform. So I was able to get the lowdown on what's expected in this latest version. Google Android OS updates have been introduced so rapidly since Android first launched two and a half years ago that for average Android smartphones users, it's hard to keep up with what it all means.

Related links
• Ice Cream Sandwich First Take
• Complete coverage: Google I/O

In this week's Ask Maggie, I explain some of the new features and benefits of the upcoming Google Android OS, Ice Cream Sandwich. I also explain to another reader why I don't think BlackBerry maker Research In Motion will ever make a BlackBerry Messenger app for the iPhone. And finally, I answer a reader's question about whether the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S II will support AT&T's 4G wireless network.

Ask Maggie is a weekly advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you've got a question, please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header.

New tasty delights in Android's Ice Cream Sandwich

Dear Maggie,
Now that Google has announced the Ice Cream Sandwich version of Android, what does it mean for me? When will it be available? And what new features might I see on my Android phone? Also, will existing Android phones be able to get Ice Cream Sandwich?


Dear Carl,
Yes indeed, Google announced its next version of the Google Android operating system, Ice Cream Sandwich, at Google I/O this week. Google I/O is the company's annual developer conference, held in San Francisco.

(The different versions of Android are named alphabetically, i.e., Froyo, Gingerbread, Honeycomb, and now Ice Cream Sandwich.)

Ice Cream Sandwich icon
Google's next version of the Android OS is Ice Cream Sandwich, and it has a delicious-looking logo. James Martin/CNET

Ice Cream Sandwich will basically bring the functionality of Honeycomb, the version of the OS tailored for tablets, to your phone. This includes a holographic user interface, better multitasking, a scrolling list of apps, resizable widgets, and richer widgets. It will also add some features to the functionality of your device that are enabled by the 3.1 version of Honeycomb. Google also announced at Google I/O this week that it has released Honeycomb 3.1 for the Verizon Wireless 3G version of the Motorola Xoom tablet.

This next version of Honeycomb, which will eventually make its way into Ice Cream Sandwich phones, includes features such as 3D facial detection. During the first day's keynote presentation, Google demoed a feature that's able to recognize when someone is speaking and prompt the tablet's camera to focus on that person. Google also demoed the ability to alter a person's facial features on the fly, changing the nose or mouth in real time. These tools will be available to developers for Ice Cream Sandwich, so they may find their way into applications made for smartphones, too.

The real purpose of Ice Cream Sandwich is to become the unifying version of Android for all mobile products that use the operating system. Though Honeycomb was designed for tablets, Ice Cream Sandwich will be a cross-platform OS. It will be the one OS that runs everywhere. This means it will allow developers to create apps once and then those apps will be able to operate on different devices with different screen sizes and different capabilities. The OS will essentially be smart enough to figure out which type of device the app is running on and then adjust parameters.

Ice Cream Sandwich phones will also get access to the newly announced movie rental service in the Android Market (along with all Android phones 2.2 and above). They'll also get access to Google Music and compatibility with hardware accessories like keyboards and game controllers, CNET Reviews editors Jessica Dolcourt and Nicole Lee wrote in a recent blog post analyzing the news.

Google hasn't said exactly when Ice Cream Sandwich will launch. But the company did say it will be in the fourth quarter of 2011. Google also hasn't said which devices will be first to offer Ice Cream Sandwich.

Because Ice Cream Sandwich is expected to be the "unifying" version of Android, Google has said it will be able to run on most versions of existing Android hardware. Of course, it's hard to say for sure which existing devices will be updated by handset makers and wireless operators once Ice Cream Sandwich becomes available.

BlackBerry Messenger app for the iPhone?

Hi Maggie,
I am eligible for an upgrade with Verizon later this year, and I want to know if I should get the iPhone or a new BlackBerry. I've had a BlackBerry for years, and I love BBM (BlackBerry Messenger.) But I hate that BlackBerry lacks media features and a good Internet experience. I don't want to be stuck with a BlackBerry for two more years, because I think the company is falling behind. Is there any chance that Research In Motion might introduce a BBM app for the iPhone this year?


Dear Jack,
I suppose anything is possible. But I'd say it's probably unlikely that RIM would offer a BlackBerry Messenger or BBM app for the iPhone anytime soon. I asked Eric Zeman from the blog PhoneScoop his opinion on this matter. (He was sitting next to me in the press room at Google I/O as I was writing this column.)

Here's his take: He said it would be difficult to get the full BBM experience on an iPhone, because the way BBM works is through RIM's network of BIS and BES servers.

BIS is the BlackBerry Internet Service, which RIM offers to consumers through carriers such as AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel, and T-Mobile. And BES is RIM's BlackBerry Enterprise Server architecture. It lets companies offer BlackBerry e-mail service.

Whether you use the consumer version of BlackBerry or the enterprise version through your company, in each instance, RIM controls the servers that provide the e-mail and messaging services. Because RIM has built its e-mail and messaging service around this server architecture, it's able to control the path the messages take between sender and destination. In the case of BBM, it provides transparency into the path of the message. So a sender can see whether the message was received by the recipient and if that message was read.

This is very different from SMS text messages, which sometimes get lost in the network. Senders have no idea if their text reached its destination or if it was read.

Another benefit of RIM's server architecture, of which I'm sure you're well aware, is that because BBM messages go over the BlackBerry server network and are used only between BlackBerry phones, users can bypass SMS text messaging and carrier data charges. This has made the feature very popular with parents of teenagers, who don't want to pay the extra $20 a month for unlimited texting.

Because RIM has this closed type of architecture for its messaging services, Zeman said he's doubtful RIM could replicate the BBM service for the iPhone.

Is the Samsung Galaxy S II 4G?

Dear Maggie,
I am planning to buy the new Samsung Galaxy S II when it comes to AT&T. I noticed when I was looking online recently that the specs suggest that it supports HSPA+, which offers downloads up to 21Mbps. Does this mean the phone will operate on AT&T's 4G network?


Dear Ricchiazz,
You're correct that the Samsung Galaxy S II supports HSPA+. And it's very likely the phone will come to AT&T's network very soon. Recently, the device cleared the Federal Communications Commission review process, which suggests the device will soon be sold here in the U.S. market. There's been no official word from either Samsung or AT&T on which carrier it will end up on in the U.S., but there's a very good chance it will be on AT&T's network.

The Samsung Galaxy S II was first announced at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February.

CNET Reviews editor Jessica Dolcourt has tested an unlocked version of the Galaxy S II that's available in Europe. This version of the device supports AT&T's 850/1,900MHz 3G bands. She used an AT&T SIM card to test the phone and said she was able to receive HSPA+ speeds on the device.

Now to answer your question about whether the phone will support AT&T's 4G network. It depends on what you consider 4G. AT&T calls its HSPA+ "4G," but in reality AT&T is using the same spectrum and same fundamental technology for its "4G" HSPA+ service as for its 3G wireless data service, which uses an older version of the HSPA technology.

Of course, there's a difference in speed between older generations of 3G wireless service and HSPA+. But AT&T is also building an LTE, or Long Term Evolution, network. This is a fundamentally different technology and AT&T plans to use its 700MHz spectrum to build this network.

LTE is also called "4G." And because it's expected to deliver much higher wireless data speeds, and because it's a more efficient technology that's being thought of as a "next generation" wireless technology by many carriers around the world that plan to upgrade their networks to the technology, it's seen as closer to real 4G than HSPA+. But the truth is that neither technology officially meets all the requirements of 4G technology outlined by the International Telecommunications Union.

AT&T is building its 4G LTE network now. And it expects to launch the service this summer. Meanwhile, for several months AT&T has been upgrading its current 3G network, using its existing spectrum, to HSPA+ technology. The company said that it had more than 80 percent of its existing wireless footprint upgraded to HSPA+ late last year.

So what does this mean in terms of the Samsung Galaxy S II and 4G wireless support? Well, the Samsung Galaxy S II can operate on an HSPA+ network. So in places where AT&T's HSPA+ network is up and running, you should get those faster data speeds.

But the Samsung Galaxy S II doesn't support LTE. This means it won't be able to use AT&T's LTE 4G network that's currently being built.