Google announced the next version of Android, named Jelly Bean, today at its Google IO conference (check out our liveblog for the blow-by-blow description). Jelly Bean has a lot of improvements in notifications, speed and smoothness, and a new feature called Google Now that gives you useful real-time information based on where you are and what's coming up in your calendar.
Google Now Updates You With Useful Information In Real Time
Arguably the coolest addition in Android 4.1 is a feature called "Google Now", that always keeps you up-to-date on what's important in your life. Say you have an event coming up in your calendar. It will figure out your usual travel method, calculate the time it will take you to get to your event using that travel method, and notify you when you need to leave (with a quick shortcut to navigate you there). If you're using public transit, it will even factor in the time it will take to get you to the bus stop. (Of course, that only works if you have public transit data to work with, which is an area where Australia is conspicuously lagging.)
Google Now can also show you places of interest as you walk down the street, like restaurants and bars, and even tell you what the famous menu items are at those places. It will keep you updated on the status of upcoming flights, sports scores, currency conversions if it recognises you travelling internationally, and a lot more. It gets smarter the more you use it, too, which is awesome. That said, there's a careful privacy balancing act to be struck here; the point at which your phone tells you what to do next may be the point when it knows too much about you.
Knowledge Graph Brings Smarter Search Results
Google has also added its intelligent Knowledge Graph searching to mobile search. If you search for a person, place, or thing that Google understands, it will show you a card with information pertaining to that specific thing. If you search for the weather, it displays you a screen with lots of weather information rather than just giving you a list of search results. Of course, you can swipe down to bypass the card and get your regular search results if you so choose.
If you perform the search with your voice, then it will speak the resulting Knowledge Graph answer back to you as it shows you the card. The voice recognition has been sped up and is now better at understanding natural language. The voice lady's voice is also lovely and surprisingly non-robotic. Again, though, the voice feature is US-English only.
The big disadvantage here? We haven't seen Knowledge Graph rolled out in Australia on the desktop, let alone on the mobile. So this feature won't be much help to the first wave of Jelly Bean adopters, which will presumably be people who buy the Galaxy Nexus tablet.
Notifications Are Expandable And More Detailed
Notifications in Jelly Bean are now expandable, so you can get more information about a specific notification and even take action right from the notification drawer. For example, if you have a missed call, you'll see a contact image, their number, and a button to call them back. You can also see the body of a Gmail message and reply to it, upcoming calendar events with a button to email all other attendants, and you can even like or reply to comments on social networks like FourSquare (and, presumably, Facebook and Twitter). If someone shares a photo on Google+, you'll see a full resolution version of the photo, and you can +1 or share it with one tap.
By default, the drawer expands the top notification in the list, and as you swipe the top notification away, the next one in the list will flat up and automatically expand. If you want to expand other notifications in the drawer, you can do so with a two-finger swipe.
"Project Butter" Adds Speed and Smoothness To Android's UI
Google has taken more steps to improve Android's sometimes-laggy UI with something it calls "Project Butter": an initiative to improve speed and smoothness. This is something Ice Cream Sandwich aspired to do as well, but instead of practical UI tweaks, it looks like Jelly Bean contains more under-the-hood improvements (which is what Android really needed). The most interesting of these under the hood tweaks is the touch responsiveness improvement, which ramps up the CPU as soon as you touch the screen so it can react quickly to whatever you're about to do.
Voice Actions Are Now Available Offline
Speaking of voice control, Google has also shrunk the size of voice recognition so that the entire thing is offline. That means if you want to send a text message or type using your voice, you can do so right from the keyboard, no internet connection necessary.
The New Camera Has More Gestures
The Camera has scoreda few new cool gestures. When in camera view, you can swipe to the left to view your camera roll, and swipe through your photo library right from there. If you want a wider view, you can pinch in to view a filmstrip of your photos, and swipe up to delete any of your photos, just as you can in the browser or multitasking screens introduced in Ice Cream Sandwich.
The Home Screen Automatically Resizes Widgets To Fit
Lastly, the home screen has a very cool new feature in which it automatically rearranges your screen when you drop in widgets. Say you want to move a widget to another screen, but there isn't enough room for that widget. It'll automatically rearrange your icons and resize the widget so it fits perfectly, which is pretty awesome.
These aren't the only new things in Jelly Bean, but they are the coolest. It also incorporates new Android Beam features (like the ability to pair your phone with Bluetooth speakers just by tapping them together), a dozen new input languages, accessibility features for blind users, and more.
Jelly Bean will be available as an over-the-air update to the Galaxy Nexus, Nexus S in mid-July, with other phones following behind. Spotted a new feature that you think looks awesome, or something you wish they would have added? Talk about it in the comments.