Why Android Honeycomb should have Apple scared

February 4, 2011, 5:19 PM UTC

The fusion of cutting edge hardware and radical user interface improvements proves iOS has catching up to do.

Depending on who you asked at yesterday’s Android Honeycomb launch event in Mountain View, California, the latest upgrade to Google’s (GOOG) mobile OS was either a revelation or another iterative upgrade.

Some of the attendees I spoke to shrugged when I asked what they thought.

“Looks like just the next natural step for the OS,” said one.

Interestingly enough, none of those questioned actually owned iPads. Now if you’re one of the millions who use Apple’s (AAPL) popular tablet regularly, you’ll likely agree it’s probably changed the way you interact with media: you’re probably more likely to check email or read your favorite blogs on the couch, in bed, or on a plane. And those stats about enterprise adoption probably aren’t lying: 80 of the Fortune 100 companies are testing out or using the iPad in the corporate workplace. In fact, I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve had with executives and press reps who swear by it and then proceed to give an entire presentation on the device.

I’ve owned an iPad for 10 months now, and I’ll be the first to tell you that I didn’t really view it as more than a luxury item until recently. Sure, it’s lighter than my MacBook Pro and still lighter than the recently introduced MacBook Airs by at least half a pound, but it was only until I started traveling more for work and pleasure did I realize its true utility. In between meetings and at launch events, I’m perfectly comfortable banging out emails, sending instant messages to my colleagues, and catching up on the latest tech news in the blogosphere.

Then Honeycomb came along. You’ll be forgiven for seeing the leaked preview footage and thinking it’s just another OS update because it’s not until you actually see Honeycomb up close and play with it on a device like Motorola’s Xoom that you realize just how limited the iPad experience remains.

There are some real reasons to be excited about Honeycomb from both a hardware and software perspective:

Xoom, xoom, xoom. Motorola’s (MMI) tablet was first introduced last month at CES, and after tinkering with several units for a good half hour, let me tell you, the future of tablets looks promising, at least if the Xoom is anything to go by. We’re talking beefy specs: a 10.1-inch capacitive touch screen with an improved resolution of 1280×800 — the iPad sports a 9.7-inch display with a 1,024 by 768 resolution — a 5MP HD camcorder with a front-facing cam, and a dual-core ARM-based Tegra 2 chipset, all housed in a sexy black chassis that’s just a hair thicker than the iPad and probably one or two ounces heavier. Given all the hardware features you’re getting, the higher resolution and extra half-inch of physical display, it’s certainly not an unreasonable tradeoff. Besides, it’s not like the iPad was ever a heifer by any stretch of the imagination, anyway.

Better multitasking. Not the weird gimpy version featured in iOS that only quickens the app-swapping experience but doesn’t actually keep apps besides say, Pandora, actively running in the background. Also, pressing the home button to swap between apps is fine, but feels less-than-ideal. With Honeycomb, a virtual button tap shows apps you’re running (and recently run) with large, live preview tiles that appear on the left side of the screen.

Multitasking occurs with live preview panes on the left side of the homescreen.

Widgets. To some, this probably sounds about as interesting as when the Beatles finally came to iTunes — interesting, but late to the party. Still, once you’ve played around with them, iPad owners will realize what they were missing. You can populate your numerous homepages with a variety of widgets including Gmail and music. They update in real time and show more information than say, email on the iOS homescreen — whereas iOS will just show you the number of emails a user might have, the Gmail homepage widget shows subject headers and the first sentence or two of the actual message. Shuffling through say, emails, news items, and so forth is as easy as a swipe down, and tapping the item expands the widget to the full-screen app experience.

Notifications. I love my iPad, but I hate the notifications system, which is funny because I didn’t always feel that way. It was only when iOS introduced multitasking that I came to loathe it. If you’re unfamiliar with how it works, blue pop-up windows appear smack in the middle of the screen, and the only way to go back to what you’re doing is to tap the window to make it disappear. Totally fine if this happens once in a while, but multitasking means this becomes more of a common occurrence. Sign into AOL Instant Messenger for instance, and prepare yourself for an incessant stream of notifications. Heaven help you if you’re trying to read a news story or ebook and chat with colleagues or friends at the same time. It’s a Herculean test of patience.

Honeycomb addresses notifications differently: you get a instant message or video chat call, a small notification pops up in the bottom right-hand corner. You can tap to expand and dive deeper into the notification, or you can ignore it completely. You’re not obligated to give it any attention until you’re ready.

If there’s any downside to Honeycomb and tablets like the Xoom, it’s that we simply don’t know the toll these features may have on battery life. Motorola said recently we can expect 10 hours of continuous video, which is on par with the iPad, but with tons of multitasking and widgets potentially running in the background, the real-world figure could be much less.

Will Apple catch up? Of course, though on their own terms and in their own time, which is to say, many of these features will eventually make their way over but in a fashion that conforms to Apple’s ongoing mission of battery life and simplicity, sometimes over increased functionality.

Still, given what I’ve seen of Honeycomb and Motorola’s excellent tablet, Cupertino will have some serious catching up to do with their iPad 2.