Three or four years ago, the concept of a tiny computer that can browse the Internet, take high-quality photographs, give on-point directions via satellite and oh yeah, make phone calls, was unheard of. Now so called ‘smartphones’ are huge business, and the major players in the industry are no longer content to let Apple and BlackBerry eat the whole pie.
Much fuss has been made in the media about the new T-Mobile G1, or ‘Googlephone,’ as it has affectionately been named. An HTC-made smartphone and the first device to use Google’s all-new Android mobile operating system, the G1 has drawn direct comparisons to the Apple iPhone.
Some features of Android as software and the G1 hardware bring a more robust experience than the iPhone, which revolutionized the industry when it dropped last year, but judging the G1 only as it stacks with the Apple device is missing the point.
First things first, the phone hardware itself: The simplest way to describe the G1 physically is to combine the defining elements of the iPhone, Blackberry and Sidekick. To interact with the phone, the touch interface used, which is similar to that of the iPhone, but without some of the fancy features that make that device so special and easy to use.
When combined with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard and a trackball like those on BlackBerry phones, things get interesting. The keyboard is a welcome addition, especially to iPhone users sick of trying to type on the tiny on-screen virtual keyboard. And while navigating in the web browser by touching the screen works well for the most part, sometimes the trackball works even better, and is a welcome addition.
Generally, the phone is easy to use, though the experience is not all positive. When turned horizontally so that the keyboard can slide out, the bottom ‘chin’ of the G1 sticks out at an angle right where your right hand will go down, making typing difficult.
While the phone as a whole has a good feeling of weight, the screen slider and back cover can rattle back and forth at times, a constant reminder that the expensive smartphone is made of cheap plastic.
While the G1 is good enough to get the job done, the real star here is Google Android. The open source mobile operating system-meaning public and private developers have access to the inner workings of the platform from top to bottom is unlike anything from Apple, Microsoft Windows Mobile or BlackBerry to date.
In the months leading up to the G1’s launch, Google sponsored a contest for independent developers to write applications to run on the platform. The Internet super-company then made the winners available to G1 users for free at launch, leading to some truly spectacular software from the get-go.
One free program, called ShopSavvy, allows users to use the G1’s camera as a barcode scanner. An item is scanned and then prices are displayed from many online and chain stores, letting you know if the textbook you are about to plunk down $80 on at the bookstore is available from Amazon for $25.
As the Android platform is released to more phones in the coming year, developers are already planning more business oriented applications as well, like BlackBerry Connect and Microsoft Outlook Exchange Support to make powerful Android phones better for the business set.
The G1, as the first phone to run on Google Android, is probably not the best for someone used to the polish of an iPhone. It is a clear step up in terms of power and features from something like a Sidekick, and as the infant platform develops more and more the open source community will push the G1 to new heights.
For gadget-heads and those who want a phone that can do just about everything right and are willing to tolerate a few kinks, there is no more exciting smartphone on the market right now, Apple be damned.