Google has released the Software Developer Kit for Android 2.3. The company is also introducing the Google Nexus S smartphone which will be one of the first to run the updated operating system. It will be available for purchase online or at retailers including Best Buy and Carphone Warehouse starting December 16th in the US and December 20th in the UK.In the US, the phone will be available either unlocked or tied to the T-Mobile network.

The Nexus S was built by Samsung and features a 1GHz Hummingbird CPU, 802.11b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 2.1, GPS, an accelerometer, gyroscope, 5MP camera, and support for Near field Communication. It has 512MB of RAM and 16GB of storage. While the Nexus S will be the new developer phone from Android, I suspect we’ll see Android 2.3 pushed out to the Google Nexus One in the coming days, with updates for other phones hopefully coming soon as well.

So what’s new in Gingerbread? While there are a lot of changes, here are some of the highlights:

  • UI tweaks including a simpler visual theme
  • New keyboard design with better spacing to improve speed and accuracy while also providing larger suggestions (letters also pop up as you type, to give you a better visual cue of what you’re typing)
  • Improved text selection and copy/paste
  • Better power management system which shuts off apps that are running too long in the background and provides a better look at which apps and services are using the most battery life
  • A Manage Apps button is added to the Home Screen menu option
  • Downloads  application provides quick access to files downloaded using any app (the browser, email, etc)

Two of the biggest changes include support for VoIP and NFC.

If you’re not familiar with the acronyms, the first stands for Voice Over Internet Protocol, and it means you can make calls using your data plan without using up your voice minutes on your phone plan. This will only work when you’re calling users with SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) accounts with third party services.

While there are plenty of third party apps for making VoIP calls already, including Skype and Fring, the feature is now baked right into the operating system

NFC stands for Near-field communications, and it’s a newish technology that lets you interact with real-world objects around you. For instance, you can bring your phone near an item (like a menu, or a poster) with a tag to trigger an action on your phone such as opening a URL. This technology can also be used to turn your phone into a virtual credit card by making a secure connection between your phone and another device to transfer money from your bank account — although it might be a little while before we start to see that sort of thing happen in the US>

Those are some of the big changes that users will likely notice right away, but Google has also added a number of tweaks for developers which should lead to better gaming and multimedia apps.

Among other things, developers now have improved access to audio and sensor tools, support for gyroscope access, and tighter integration with the camera. There’s also support for VP8 and WebM video formats, which is kind of a no-brainer, since Google is the driving force behind those open source codecs. Google is also adding digital audio effects such as reverb, bass boost, and headphone virtualization, which developers will be able to access to create apps such as graphic equalizers.

You can find out more about the developer tools in the video below.

Update: Want to delve beyond the highlights? Google has posted the full Android 2.3 user guide online.

Brad Linder

Brad Linder is editor of Liliputing and Mobiputing.He's been tinkering with mobile tech for decades and writing about it since...