Amazon’s Kindle Fire appears to be a hit with consumers, according to recent numbers from research firm IDC, and at least part of that success is likely attributable to Amazon’s decision to use essentially a custom version of Android on the tablet, instead of a stock install. Google has yet to really nail the Android tablet experience, even with Android 4.0, according to industry experts like GigaOM’s Kevin Tofel. That’s where Ottawa, Canada-based company Teknision comes in, with its Chameleon Android-based tablet OS.
Teknision, an Ottawa-based design firm, recently revealed its Chameleon project to the world, which is a version of Android ICS built specifically to show off Texas Instrument’s OMAP 5 mobile platform, a chipset designed to power smartphones and tablets. TI came to Teknision when it wanted to show off what its next-gen platform is capable of, with a special focus on transitions and animations. Teknision, which also led UX design efforts for BlackBerry’s Tablet OS (which remains impressive despite less-than-stellar sales numbers for the hardware), knows a thing or two about creating a touch-friendly interface customers will want to use.
Despite Chameleon’s origins as essentially a tech demo to help TI show its wares, including the OMAP’s ability to enable smooth transitions, plus TI’s face recognition and HD video streaming tech at the Consumer Electronics Show and Mobile World Congress this year, Teknision President Gabor Vida told BetaKit in an interview that the company immediately recognized it had value well beyond that limited initial use case.
“In the past, what other companies had done was basically just demo the technology in as flashy a way as possible,” Vida said. “But what we noticed was missing is that nobody’s really thought of how can the technology that I’m showing actually be meaningful to people soon; not like five years from now, but tomorrow.”
Teknision’s work focused on shoring up the UX deficiencies the team saw as afflicting Android in general. “In talking to OEMs, they keep seeing the same thing, in that the ones that are successful in selling Android-based devices are the ones that change the Android experience like Samsung and HTC, whereas for the rest, there’s nothing to differentiate them,” Vida said. But where previously companies had focused on small changes, the Teknision team wanted to significantly change the experience, something that could help OEMs stand out in a sea of similar software.
Another thing Teknision noted about Android was that its overall experience is very similar to every other mobile OS out there, including iOS and the PlayBook operating system. “The only big difference is this concept of the home screen; iOS doesn’t have it, there’s just a bunch of icons,” Vida pointed out. “In Android, they thought ‘lets have these homescreens,’ but the homescreens themselves are pretty useless […] users have got to figure out how to throw widgets on them, and set the widgets and lay them out before they become usable.” Chameleon is designed to make full use of Android’s homescreen ability, in a way that will immediately make sense to users.
That’s where Teknision came up with the idea for “contextual dashboards,” smart homescreens that auto populate with useful features whenever a user changes venue. There’s one for home, one for work and one for travel in Chameleon’s product description page, but there’s no reason the company or OEMs couldn’t configure additional ones based on other specific use cases. These context-relevant screens are triggered by changes in location detected by on-board geolocation services, or by other triggers, including Wi-Fi network, etc. They provide access to things like home automation, weather and calendar widgets, and also change the type of apps that are made most accessible.
Chameleon also incorporates much more powerful facial recognition technology than what’s available natively in ICS, which Vida says can enable a whole host of accessibility and sharing options. He says it can recognize not only individuals near-instantly, but also be set to respond only when certain facial conditions are met (unlocking a device only when a user smiles, for instance). The facial recognition tech can also be used for account switching, something people have been requesting for the iPad since it came out. One user could be greeted with an entirely different set of apps and media than another, making it ideal for shared device situations.
Teknision won’t sell its own tablets, but it is looking to offer OEMs the software as a way to differentiate from the competition. And if the Kindle Fire’s early success in offering customers an Android experience that doesn’t look or feel all that much like other Android tablets helps prove anything, it’s that hardware makers need to look beyond exhaustive lists of specs and external add-ons like 3D cameras to really stand a chance of playing in the same market currently owned by Apple’s iPad.