Google showed off its Android 3.0 operating system, code-named Honeycomb, today at a press conference at the company’s headquarters. And it promises much better support for 3D graphics on larger tablet-size screens.

Honeycomb is strategically important to Google because it could help Android catch up with Apple’s iPad tablets, which have been a smash sensation in the past year. Tablets using the software, such as the Motorola Xoom, will appear on the market shortly.

The company talked about its latest mobile software at the Consumer Electronics Show last month, but today Android chief Andy Rubin (pictured) and others on the Google team revealed more details about what users will see with Android-based tablets.

One of the stand-outs of Honeycomb is its support for a new 3D graphics rendering engine, dubbed Renderscript, which allows for the display of cool 3D games. It works with existing Android games such as Fruit Ninja, but it will also allow any apps to access 3D graphics easily. The company showed off a couple of cool-looking 3D games, including a real-time strategy game with hundreds of soldiers moving around on a medieval battlefield at the same time.

Google also streamlined Android’s user interface to be much faster when responding to a touch from a finger. You can now scroll through your emails, calendar, music collection, or other things very quickly. With YouTube, Google created a nice-looking user interface with 3D nuances that shows you which videos you can view. When you turn the page in an eBook, you will see a 3D animation of the page turning, much as it does with an Apple iPhone or iPad.

Google also showed the live video chat function built into Honeycomb, allowing users to talk to each other. Singer Cee-Lo Green did a live video call with Google’s people on stage. It took a few tries before it worked. I don’t know what connection was used, but Green’s voice was garbled and the video imagery was slow. Google, however, says that users will see smooth video. I suppose that depends on the quality of the broadband network they use.

CNN showed off the Honeycomb-specific app that it created with lots of images and a graphically rich user interface. With Honeycomb, you can see a bunch of images formatted around news stories that are tailored to fit a tablet screen. The CNN iReport app for Android will let users upload their own images and videos directly to a CNN news site, allowing protesters in Egypt or a live event, for example, to broadcast immediately on the web.

A big part of the message is that Honeycomb means speed. Tablet users don’t want to wait for something to happen. The user interface is also reoriented for touch uses. When reading your email, for instance, you can highlight something and then tap a bar at the top for options of what to do with that item, such as an email message. The bar changes to give you options such as trash, archive or reply. It’s meant for quick access. The touchscreens are now much more useful, allowing you to pick up and drag things around quickly.

The buying experience for Android Market apps will also be much easier than in the past. That will enable more e-commerce on Android phones and tablets, which has been lagging far behind Apple’s platform to date. With a web version of the Android Market, you can more easily browse the store, complete a purchase on the web, and then immediately see the app download over the air to your device. Within seconds, the app appears on your phone and is available to use. If you want to share your purchase with friends, you can Tweet it. If anyone else wants to buy the same thing, they can click on the Twitter message and go directly to the item on the Android Market.

Google is also offering in-app purchases, something that Apple launched on the iPhone more than a year ago. The in-app purchases allow someone to buy a virtual good within an app without ever having to leave the app. Disney is supporting Honeycomb with three new apps. Bart Decrem, founder of Tapulous (which Disney bought), said that Disney waited for Android 3.0 and the revamped Android Market before throwing its support behind Android. The apps include Radio Disney, Tap Tap Revenge 4, and the game Jelly Car. Decrem said the company was waiting for in-app purchases before bringing Tap Tap, a franchise that has been downloaded more than 50 million times on the App Store, to Android.

Altogether, the company is showing off 18 Honeycomb-optimized apps today.

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