I have touched the Google Android-powered T-Mobile G1 and it is capable, interesting, moderately polished, and will completely baffle the average consumer

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.

Fuckin' 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."

PreviouslyRushkoff's take on Android

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  1. It looked to me like a poor man’s iPhone riding on the promise of a free and open-source future.

    I still want to get a close look at it, though. If the marketplace (that promise!) takes off, the rest is candy. And there can always be a better handset.

  2. Ok. I think we’re doing all right now.

    – Apple has an exquisitely designed mobile OS with limited openness.

    – Google as an exquisitely open mobile OS with limited design.

    Now they both need to start learning from each other.

  3. @#3: Well, ya gotta wonder if those two things are compatible. Does good, functional, unified design come from a dictator and openness come from a democracy?

    Only few companies have ‘learned’ _either_ of those things. Most companies in possession of good design or open attitudes were born with it.

  4. It looked to me like a poor man’s iPhone riding on the promise of a free and open-source future.

    Wasn’t that OpenMoko’s business plan? How did that work out for them, anyway? Anyone ever seen one in the wild?

  5. If T-mobile only had decent coverage in the US. Not sure if the same handset will be available in places where T-Mobile has better presence internationally.

    Android would fly if HTC made the same for Verizon and Sprint networks. Maybe. But then it would not be GSM, rest of the world, market.

  6. @#3:

    Wait a second. I ask this with utmost sincerity; can you honestly utter “Apple” and “openness” in the same sentence?

  7. When will phone companies realize that they’ll actually get more sales if it’s possible to get a data plan without it being bundled with voice?

    I don’t talk on the phone 300 minutes a month. And I know I’m not the only one for whom that’s the case. Seriously, this thing could sell like hotcakes amongst the deaf community if that were an option.

  8. Sounds dull.

    I can write any app I want for my iPhone, although almost everything has already been written and is more than likely free in the app store. I don’t see how changing to android will help me, Google.

    Add to that the fact that I’m pretty happy with my iPhone’s support: when the battery started having issues Apple just handed me a new phone, for free. My only real complaint with service is the amount at&t charges for their plans.

    Honestly Google, did you run out of things to make? I don’t see why you’re even going into the phone market at all.

  9. I still have a US Robotics Pilot before they became palm. Writing apps for that was the most fun i had and i know the collective groups that grew up around that device.
    I have not been as excited about a handheld device until now. iPhone was for poseurs , this is the type of device that is for users. Watching too many people use 20% of their iphones and failing at basic tasks is pretty pathetic. They hit a target demographic that likes the shiny toys but hit their limit in what they could practically do.

  10. Purly (#10): are you seriously suggesting that since the iPhone exists and is good, no one else should try to make a good phone? The iPhone isn’t perfect: for one thing you’re locked to AT&T, which sucks. For another its only one design, which may not be perfect for all people. For example I really like an actual thumb keyboard, can type almost 50 WPM on my Treo, and I’m not willing to lose that for the snazziness of an iPhone.

    Variety is good. And so far Google has been great especially in spirit with all they pursue (I can’t think of a single exception). I’m very curious to see where all this goes.

    And if any industry needs a shot of openness and user empowerment, its the cellphone industry.

  11. To be honest it has a keyboard which is my gripe with the iphone.

    Might get one, once my current 18 month contract ends…

  12. I got an iPhone about 2 months ago. I was holding out for Android, but I decided that it was going to be a 1.0 affair while the 3G iPhone was in it’s 2.0 incarnation.

    At the moment I feel vindicated but I hope Android does well because it will a) force Apple to respond, and b) improve over time, possibly even surpassing the iPhone.

  13. As an iPhone user, I’m now firmly a supporter of an onscreen keyboard. Yes, actual keys are more tactile and just a little bit faster (though I will challenge you to a race if you want). Trouble is, that a QWERTY keyboard is always just a QWERTY keyboard. When the “buttons” are just an area of the screen, they can change to become anything that you want. The tradeoff puts the touchscreen well ahead.

    YMMV of course.

  14. The best combination of design and functionality will probably come from a company, like Samsung, that cribs the best from everything that came before. Maybe even HTC will take the opportunity to become a more aggressive company.

  15. #18/Parkingtigers: Race challenge accepted if that was directed at me…. How to proceed?

    wrybread at gmail dot you know what

  16. >But the G1 will still be SIM-locked to T-Mobile, just like every other phone.

    This is wrong – T-Mobile has already stated that after 90 days you can call and cancel and use another sim. Just like any other phone they carry. They have also backed away from the 1 GB limit.

  17. @#4: I’m pretty sure that good design almost always comes about as a result of a couple of people with a cohesive vision, and who have the power (and the guts) to veto things that don’t fit with that vision, even if they’re perfectly good ideas.

    That applies to open and closed projects — cf. Firefox for an example of open-source products with generally exemplary design thanks to being relatively strict with feature additions.

    That can bring well-designed things into existence, but you also need a user culture that rewards good design. Look at the OS X platform, where having a bad interface/experience will get you pretty soundly panned by reviewers. Good apps are rewarded with popularity, while poorly-designed ones fade from view.


  18. well, i have the white g1, and it’s incredible. i’ve never owned an iPhone (although i have owned an iPhone clone). But i doubt apple can even come close to this… and before you start ranting about me being a fanboy and not knowing what i’m talking about. all letters/characters/words/sentences/paragraphs in this post are my sole opinion, and are not based on fact WHAT SO EVER. use what you can afford, borrow, steal, like, or otherwise get ahold of.

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