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Or how technology can make our lives better

Recently, I got a chance to take a look at another kickstarter project: The Chameleon Home Screen for Android Tablets. Chameleon is a replacement for the whole home screen system, the application menu and widgets. As such, the developers have quite a challenge ahead of them, as the original system isn’t bad at all. When reading what’s below, keep in mind: this is the first public beta of Chameleon, a very early one. You should expect many of the rough spots.

Chameleon Home Screen

Chameleon Home Screen

The idea behind Chameleon is, that instead of a number of home screens, you have home screens for different purposes, eg. at work, travelling and home. The home screens can be automatically activated based on a number of criteria, such as time, visible wlan networks or location.

Rules for homescreen autoactivation

Rules for homescreen autoactivation

Each home screen can contain a number of widgets in different configurations. The widget system has been redone completely, so old widgets of any kind will not work with Chameleon. This is somewhat of a pity, as many have already paid for goodies such as Beutiful Widgets. Worse than that, many applications have their own special widgetry, I for one like to have the power control and a number of tasker widgets as icons for easy access. Time will tell if the relevant widgets get ported to Chameleon, that in turn is largely dependant on Chameleon’s success. Talk about chicken and egg problem.

The widgets that come with the Chameleon Beta are more than a little limited. They include Instagram, Twitter, Weather, News and GMail widgets. To me, there are two glaring omissions: a calendar widget and a clock widget. It is slightly amusing that the Chameleon folks have decided to go with an Instagram widget instead, but I’m sure this will be rectified in short order.

Widget editing mode

Widget editing mode

The widgets themselves though, look spectacular. The graphical style is very simplistic and clean, the typography is generally well thought of and the animations are neat and short. The graphical elements are indeed there for a great tablet interface. In addition to the home screen, Chameleon also replaces the standard launcher down the bottom and the main launcher menu. Both of these work well, apart from a few small graphical bugs.

Launcher with too small background image.

Launcher with too small background image.

The home screens have two modes, one for normal widget usage and one for setting things up. This is a good practice, as it allows the settings buttons, resizing handles and the like to only be shown when the user is in the set-up mode. Resizing works really nicely and is very responsive. The home screen can be customized with background images, and widgets. Chameleon includes many neat background images and we’re told future updates will allow you to add your own as well.

Background selection

Background selection

The widgets themselves work well. The weather widget found my location with uncanny accuracy (inside the house no less!). The Gmail widget shows email just like it should. There are several serious limitations however. There is only one set of settings for the Gmail widget for example. Personally, I’d like one widget on my work screen to show my company email and another on my personal screen to show my personal ones. If the widget system doesn’t support per-instance settings, this can be a major architectural oversight. Similar functionality will be needed for other widgets as well, like task management and calendar widgetry.

Another concern is the way the GMail app authenticates to get the emails. I’m puzzled as to why it can’t use the Android Account System to access my mail. Why do I need to authorize their website to access my mail? Needless to say, I did not add my corporate email to Chameleon at this time.

Concerns aside, there are many places where the beta-ness of Chameleon shows through. For example, the menu background doesn’t scale to large screens, the news app only allows one feed at a time, the settings dialogs being very sluggish or the quick launch bar in the bottom allowing adding the same icon many times.

I don’t see Chameleon being usable in anything besides a tablet. Then again, it’s being marketed as a new home screen for tablets, not phones. This is actually a good thing, as much of the Android infrastructure is designed to be generic, for whatever platform the operating system happens to be running on. On the other hand, it represents a split in the widget infrastructure. If you want your application widgets to work on normal Android and Chameleon equipped ones, you’ll get to do things twice. This is a fundamental problem with Android, and it’s growing more prominent by the day.

Is Chameleon any good then? In a way, that’s the wrong question. It’s not ready for prime time yet, but it shows promise, and I’m willing to bet it will be very nice indeed. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on widget developer documentation. If you’re good at that sort of thing I’m willing to bet there’s a pretty nifty new niche market waiting to be tapped with Chameleon add on widgets.

The tests were performed on a Asus Infinity Pad, courtesy of my employer.

I’ll be sure to write more when Chameleon has some significant updates.

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