Unwrapping Google's Android 'Gingerbread' gift

Android fans got an early Christmas gift from Google Monday as the company released the new 'Gingerbread' version of its Android mobile operating system.

Android fans got an early Christmas gift from Google Monday as the company released the new "Gingerbread" version of its Android mobile operating system.

Gingerbread, the nickname for Android 2.3, is the first new version of the mobile operating system to hit the market since the 2.2 versions (a.k.a., "Froyo") was released this past spring.  But whereas Froyo was focused squarely on updating Android's enterprise features, Gingerbread's key features revolve around adding new forms of communications to Android devices.

Also read: A brief history of Android

The first big new communications feature is SIP-based VoIP calling that lets users make calls to other SIP users over the Web.  Google says that users must sign up for their own SIP accounts with their service providers, as SIP accounts "are not provided as part of the Internet calling feature."  But presuming the carrier and the device will support SIP calling, users can add SIP addresses to their contact lists and can initiate quick calls just as they do with regular cell phone numbers.

The other big new communication feature is a Near-Field Communications (NFC) Reader that can read and interact with nearby NFC tags.  NFC is particularly important because it's the key technology that will be used to transform smartphones into credit cards in the near future.  Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile have been making headway in this area and they have announced that they've joined forces to build a mobile commercial payment network that will use NFC to send encrypted data from smartphones to payment processors.

In addition to the big communications features, other key additions to the Gingerbread platform include:

-Front-facing camera access: Gingerbread features an application that lets users access multiple cameras on a single device

-Improved copy-and-paste capabilities: Gingerbread lets users highlight individual words by press-holding them.  From there, they can copy and paste them to a clipboard.

-More power monitoring options: One of the complaints about smartphones is the fact that it can be difficult to remember to shut down applications you're running, which leads to rapidly reduced battery life.  Gingerbread's application settings let you know how much power and memory are being consumed by which specific applications on the device.  The system can also shut down idle applications that are keeping the device awake for longer than normal or are consuming excessive amounts of battery life.

-Application management: Users can also shut down applications manually by accessing the Manage Applications control in the Options Menu.  From there they can see all active applications and how much memory they're eating up and can shut them down individually.

-Enhanced game development features: Android game developers will be pleased to see that the Gingerbread software development kit (SDK) will feature upgraded video drivers and event distribution that Google says will enhance games with 3D graphics.

In addition to introducing Gingerbread, Google announced  on its main blog that  the Nexus S phone co-developed with Samsung is the first Android phone to ship with the new OS on it.

With Gingerbread released, the next version of the Android operating system is rumored to be a tablet-centric OS that is optimized for more large-screen devices such as Samsung's Galaxy tab.  Google hasn't given a release date for this new version yet, but it will likely be sometime in the first half of 2011.

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