I pity the person who has to market this.
The T-Mobile G1 is a fine phone with a fine operating system. It's relatively small, although still evidencing the thickness that its slide-out QWERTY keyboard necessitates. There are genuine innovations in how it displays information to its user, with a snappy little "windowblind" that fills up like a status bar of icons on the top of the screen but can be pulled down with a finger swipe to show more detailed alerts. There's a compass inside that opens a wide array of new capabilities when coupled with the onboard camera and GPS.
Perhaps it does too much. Google has created what seems to be a solid operating system — I'll be able to say with more surety when we get our demo unit in early October — and quite a few attractive applications. But in the press conference announcing the G1 there was only one ooh-and-ah moment, when the live Google Maps augmented reality mode that overlays StreetView imagry and data on the real world. It was shown briefly in a video, which then transitioned to someone downloading Pac-Man.
There's no magic in the G1 and that's a shame, because the potential for magic is there. A completely open-source operating system married to an over-the-air marketplace? There's nothing not to love about that. Except that there are few applications on display on the G1 demo units on the floor here under the Queensboro bridge at all. The rich software ecosystem that Android chief Andy Rubin touts is coming &mdash "We don't support Exchange," he more-or-less said in my memory, "but that will be a great opportunity for a third-party developer" — won't take off unless there are a broad base of customers using the devices.
Recently I spent a few days driving up Highway 101 with a friend. She had never used an iPhone before, but I handed the phone to her to pick out some music for us to pipe through the rental car over the minijack cable I'd gone to many tiny Radio Shacks to find. I figured she'd be able to figure out the iPod interface without trouble — and she did — but I didn't expect to hear her exclaim wistfully "how pretty the animations are." My friend is bright, but she's not a geek, yet the interface of the iPhone triggered an appreciation of elegance and beauty in her that nothing inside of Android's interface, full of conflicting user-interface button shapes and garish (if cutesy!) icons, seemed to provoke in me.
The G1 will be a great phone for geeks. A more-than-worthy heir to Windows Mobile. The best handset yet for coders, tinkerers, experimenters, and open-source iconoclasts (or those, like me, who just like to profit from the fruit of their labor). But as a consumer device and a contender to the nascent iPhone it has a rough row to hoe.
Still, I'm cheering Google on. Better a free, open, powerful, and slightly awkward operating system from Google than from Microsoft, Nokia, or RIM. Google isn't marketing Android to the mass market, but instead to phone manufacturers. It will probably do very well as an operating system for low-end smartphones.
HTC is HTC: a maker of whatever hardware you tell them to make. I've no doubt the G1 (formerly the HTC Dream) will live up their typically high standards. But they're irrelevant to the consumer, their tiny HTC logo silk-screened on the side of the device, while T-Mobile takes the front and Google the back.
T-Mobile, of course, aren't doing anything they don't have to when it comes to mixing up the game. Their pricing plans for the G1 are reasonable: $25-a-month for unlimited data and 400 text messages; $35-a-month for unlimited data and SMS. And they've rolled out 3G in the major markets.
But the G1 will still be SIM-locked to T-Mobile, just like every other phone. And they aren't going to offer a data-only plan for the G1 which would let users rely on voice-over-IP solutions in lieu of cellular. Just like AT&T and Apple, T-Mobile and Google (and HTC) will play as nicely together as they have to move units into customers' hands while keeping those same customers locked into multi-year contracts. There may be shake-ups in the way wireless data is provisioned in the future, but it's not happening today.
Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin made a brief, perhaps-a-surprise appearance at the press conference. Their off-the-cuff comments were trifles — Android is open! These are little computers in your pocket! In the future people will use phones! — but as the previously lackadaisical crowd surged to snap pictures and shoot video of the richest people they'll ever share air with, Page himself inadvertently summed up both the potential and pitfalls ahead for Android.
"I've been using this phone, well, for a while now," said Page. He'd even taken it home and written an application for it that, using the accelerometer, would measure how long a tossed phone would remain in the air. That one of the heads of Google still goes home at night and tinkers with code speaks volumes about the culture from which Android is born.
Page turned to Android project lead Andy Rubin, smiling. "I don't think we'll put that software out on the App Store..." Page caught his mistake — Google's online application store branding had, after several last minute changes, settled on "Android Market" — but he couldn't remember the proper branding in time. "...the App Store," he said, going with it. Page was still smiling, but Rubin apparently was not. Page soldiered on.
"I think I'm getting a dirty look."
Previously • Rushkoff's take on Android