Google has announced a new Web-based Android Market online store that will make it easier for people to get to new applications for their smartphones and tablets.
The announcement was made today at an event where Google is showing off the new Android 3.0 software known as Honeycomb, which is designed specifically for tablets. Google also used the event, held at company headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., to take the wraps off the new Web-based Android Market. Up to this point, Android users could only discover and download apps from the Android Market client installed on their devices. Now, users will be able to get to the apps from any Web browser.
Google demonstrated the new Web-based Android Market, and the page itself shows a lot more detail than the Android Market client. It offers better pictures for promoting applications as well as ways to promote other applications alongside the one the user selected. Screenshots and user reviews are prominent.
The Web-based store also adds a social-networking element to the app store experience. It allows friends to recommend cool apps to each other. The store is also connected to Twitter, which allows people to tweet application purchases or recommendations to their Twitter followers. The tweet contains a link that will take followers directly to the Web store. The phone experience is slightly different: when you click on the link from the phone, it opens the same page but in the Android Market client on the phone instead of the Web store.
Google also showed how it has improved search within the Android Market. You can search within the Web store for applications, and Google has added some new refinements to the search experience to sort by device type, popularity, or reviews. Free apps can be accessed with one click. Searching apps based on compatible devices should help address problems with fragmentation within the Android application community.
The Web site is live here.
Google also announced that it will offer in-app purchasing for app developers. This will allow developers to sell virtual goods inside Android apps. Apple's iOS devices have had this capability for a few years now.
Adding in-app purchasing should be easy for developers, Google executives explained. The company brought up Bart DeCrem from Disney Mobile to show off some new applications the company is bringing to Android. DeCrem demonstrated playing the game Tap Tap Revenge on a Nexus S, which runs on Android 2.1 or higher. He showed how you can play and purchase a Bruno Mars song from within the Tap Tap Revenge application. Once the transaction is done, the user can move into the game part.
Disney had worked on this application for several months, but it added the in-app purchasing code only five days ago. This demonstrates how quickly and easily developers can add the in-app purchasing to their applications. Google will release developer documentation today as well as sample code for in-app purchasing.
While the big news of the day had to do with the Android Market, Google also showed off its tablet-oriented Honeycomb software. While many of the features have already been made public by Google and its hardware partners, the company took the opportunity to show off how the tablet-optimized software will work.
As CNET's tablet reviewer Donald Bell has said previously the Android Honeycomb OS "charts exciting new ground for tablets, bringing some dearly needed differentiation from the Android smartphone experience."
The first device to use the new software will be Motorola's Xoom tablet, expected to debut later this month. Motorola's tablet won CNET's Best of Show award at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month.
Google's overall vision is that services and apps will be tied together among all Google Android phones, tablets, and Google TV in the future, according to Google Android leader Andy Rubin. One of the biggest problems that Android has faced over its short lifetime is fragmentation. The open-source software is used by different hardware makers and software developers can add bits and pieces of their own special sauce to the software. What this has meant for consumers is different applications that work on different devices.
Google's cloud-based services, including the new Web-based Google Market, will help fulfill this vision. But Honeycomb will also play a role. One of the things that Honeycomb is supposed to do is to make it easier to develop applications that work both on tablets as well as smartphones.
To demonstrate this point, Hugo Barra, director of mobile products for Google, showed how the game Fruit Ninja could be played on the Honeycomb tablet without any modification to the app. Fruit Ninja is a game built and released for Android smartphones before Honeycomb was built.
But Bell wasn't entirely impressed.
"Kinda skirted the legacy app compatibility question by demoing Fruit Ninja," he wrote during the live blog. "Scaling a game isn't the same thing as scaling an app designed for a 4-inch screen."
Indeed, scaling apps designed for smaller screens to tablets and vice versa is a challenge, especially when the hardware and other software enhancements among devices differ greatly. But Honeycomb is clearly a step forward when it comes to ushering in Android tablets that will compete with Apple's iPad.
Updated 11:47 a.m. PT: This story has been updated with more information from Google's press conference.