The other thing Barra was keen to talk up was Voice Actions, which he called "the beginning of the next-generation UI." Basically, you can now talk to the phone and ask it to perform a wide variety of actions, the most popular being ‘call business' which searches for shops, restaurants, etc from a voice prompt.
Barra worked at Nuance - the company that makes the leading speech recognition software: Dragon Naturally Speaking - before joining Google, and his demonstration of voice actions looked at least as convincing as anything we've seen from DNS. However, it only works on Android 2.2, so many users will have to wait to have a go at this. Another launch yesterday - Google Voice Widgets - is only available to US users.
We asked Barra if there was a danger that, with all this innovation from Google, third-party developers might be crushed. In response he pointed to something called Cycle Hire Widget, by Little Fluffy Toys. This installs an app and corresponding widget that tells you where your nearest London cycle hire docking station is and delivers real time information about how many bikes and slots are available. It's a very cool app, so fair enough.
Barra also had a veiled dig at Apple's app store when he stressed how relatively light the app approval process is on Android, but there are still some restrictions. What seemed to get the assembled hacks most agitated during the Q&A was the matter of Android apps on tablets.
"Android apps won't run on tablets, so it would be a disservice to allow the app store to be on them," said Barra. He cited issues such as screen resolution, the presence of GPS and the right APIs as reasons Google doesn't currently allow the Android Marketplace in most tablets although, if one does tick all the boxes, then it will get the green light.
This is also a reminder of what ‘open' really means when developing Android devices. Yes, the OS is free, but if you want to deliver the full experience Google is still very much the gatekeeper. Android for tablets is clearly still very much a work in progress, but the feeling in the room was that the two subsequent version of Android - thought to be codenamed Gingerbread and Honeycomb - will be more optimised for tablets.