This is an excellent start to my product reviews! The New York Times this morning reports the launch of Google’s answer to the iPhone.
Too long was the world left with only one next-generation smartphone – complete with usable Web browser (no thanks, awkward BlackBerry or tiny Razr!), decent MP3 capability (no thanks, RealPlayer for Treo!), and a host of other really “how did I live without that” stuff. For a while there, anyone wanting to surf the Web from the car would have only one option, the iPhone, from one company, Apple, for all his surfing needs. However, here comes Google with the answer. Now there’s a choice, and it appears from this phone that it’ll even have a real keyboard (a deal-breaker for me and the iPhone)!
Notice something interesting about this phone- Google is using the Microsoft approach with this phone- instead of manufacturing its own hardware, it’s offering its software platform “Android” on many different phones from many different manufacturers. The good part of this is that you’ll be able to enjoy the Android platform on several phones from several different manufacturers, whereas if you want an Apple-based phone, you can only buy the iPhone, and you can only get it from Apple. The disadvantage to the multi-manufacturer architecture lies in the fact that Google has less control over the hardware platform, so it can potentially share in the same crashes that plague Microsoft-based phones (and computers, and toasters, and…). An interesting thing to note is that while Microsoft charges phone manufacturers to use the Windows Mobile platform, apparently Google is allowing any manufacturer to use it free of charge. (Yet another example where the Google’s method to competing is to give it away for free – giving MS a dose of its own medicine, for those of you who remember the Netscape browser wars.) That sounds so tempting, I’m thinking about manufacturing a phone myself!
Installing programs is another topic. If I want to install a program on my beloved Palm Centro phone, I have to download it from the Internet, onto my computer, then it installs the next time I sync the two devices. The iPhone brought about easier, instant downloads, straight to the phone. Ironically, though, my Centro isn’t tethered to one computer as the iPhone is- it can exist without a PC, whereas the iPhone can’t even be activated without an iTunes-enabled computer. We’ll see how Google handles the activation and tethering, but one thing is for sure- you’ll be able to download applications directly to an Android phone. One would assume the phone performs a backup of all critical programs and documents once synced with a computer…
Software downloads work using something called “repositories.” Instead of going to the store, buying a box, bringing it home, and sliding a disc into your computer, the iPhone and Android have an on-screen menu where you can select and instantly install new applications, such as Sega’s Monkeyball (really fun game), Google Maps (eliminates the need for a TomTom on your dashboard), or a tip calculator (for when you’re out to dinner and are feeling very, very lazy). These repositories are great, because any software you need is usually right there at the tap of the finger. However, this leaves a lot of control in the hands of the platform developer- what’s stopping Google or Apple can’t ban my little program from their repository? Not a lot, as we’ve seen over the past few months after Apple introduced its App Store. This never happened with the Palm Treo/Centro/Tungsten/etc. platfom, because users went directly to the application creator’s site to download the program. I’m certainly not suggesting giving up the convenience of the repository format, but bringing up something to consider. (Notably, users of unlocked iPhones actually had access to their own underground repositories before the Apple official ones were even announced!)
What does the article mean when it says Android will “loosen the control that wireless carriers have over what consumers can do with their phones”? Well, remember the 1990s, when you had AOL, Prodigy, and CompuServe? Back in those days, you paid an online service a monthly fee for access to their network, and oh by the way, you also had access to the Internet. Most of the time, users would stay on their provider’s network, where all your news, stocks, etc. were provided for you, without having to venture out into that scary Internet. One can draw a parallel from this to cell phones today: Many phones, such as the Razr, enV, etc. have advanced user interfaces, support media downloads, and may even allow you to play a few games, but their operating systems are limited to taking photos and downloading a handful of music or games from the carrier (ie. Verizon Wireless or Sprint), and the user interface and underpinnings vary depending on the phone. Each phone in and of itself is not a consistent platform for which anybody can create software. This suffices for most users, of course, because a phone is meant to call people. However, users of smartphones want more than just a schedule program on their phone these days- they want to be able to play Mah Jongg, grab an episode of Seinfeld from their computers, check soccer scores (there’s an iPhone app called “iFutbol Scores,” I’m not kidding), buy Monkeyball for $1.99 (trust me, even though I still can’t figure out how to play it, it’s so cool…), check Facebook, and maybe even edit a spreadsheet or two, all while riding the subway. Where the Verizon GetItNow, Sprint’s PCS Vision, et al. offer a limited amount of applications from a limited number of developers, these new repositories will offer a limitless amount of programs, from “Mom & Pop” software outfits, for cheap or next to it, tailored to your phone platform. Presumably, you can take these apps with you when you purchase a new phone on the same platform, instead of starting all over again.
Finally, marketing. While Windows Mobile phones are used chiefly by business-types, iPhones by trendy-types (nobody can come close to the prettiness of Apple’s user interface), and the OpenMoko smartphoneby über-nerds (it will probably require a beard, ponytail, and anime t-shirt just to turn it on), who will use the Google platform? Maybe they’ve left out branding because Google is used by, well, everybody?