I spent this morning at the unveiling of Google’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) first phone using its “Android” software, hosted on a phone made by HTC (2498.TW), called the “G1,” with service from Deutsche Telekom’s (DT) T-Mobile in the U.S. The phone is to be made available in the States on October 22nd for a price of $179 with a two-year contract.
The phone is an ugly, faceless black — or white — brick whose display swings open to reveal the typical junky plastic keyboard. I’d never give up the software keyboard on Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone for this, but some may find it familiar, and therefore acceptable. The software is spiffy, and fairly responsive when switching between applications. The ability to use one’s fingers in a way similar to the iPhone, by swiping across the screen to scroll Web pages, was well executed. But it’s a far cry from Apple’s “MultiTouch,” which allows you to use your hand to “smear” or “pinch” to expand Web pages, pictures, maps, etc. The phone lets you view YouTube videos, Google Maps (which is better on the iPhone) and a bunch of third party applications. In general, the T-Mobile 3G cellular network seemed fast at the 59th Street location in Manhattan where I tested the thing — pretty much as fast as AT&T’s (T) 3G network used on the iPhone.
Walt Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal has his own review of the phone today, as Eric noted earlier. What interested me was the response of software developers who showed off some programs written for the phone that you can buy through Google’s “Market” store, similar to Apple’s AppStore. These developers argue that the control Google affords them is better than what they get from Apple’s iPhone development platform.
Ecorio is a group of five developers spread across Toronto, New York and Seattle. The group won $275,000 from Google in a contest, which they’ve used to make a program that tracks one’s “carbon footprint.” For example, Ecorio can keep track of the total distance of trips you make by car, rail, plane, etc., thereby telling you how much pollution you’re causing. Ecorio representatives argue that this is only possible because their program is allowed to run uninterrupted while you’re doing things, which allows the software to track changes in the global positioning system (NYSE:GPS) coordinates, and thereby measure your total distance travelled. Apple, they point out, does not allow programs to run “in the background.”
Shop Savvy lets you take a picture of a barcode on a product package and see the latest prices for a product on the Web. This kind of thing has been seen on the iPhone, but Shop Savvy’s developers say they couldn’t build the same program on the iPhone because Apple won’t allow them to control the low-level functioning of the iPhone’s built-in camera. Without that, it’s impossible to make their program accurately read the barcode, they say.
Interestingly, neither company has a fully-fledged business plan at this point. Ecorio hopes to sell enterprise applications, and Shop Savvy wants a cut of every transaction. Maybe, maybe not. It took both companies about 8 months to make their programs, which seems a lot longer than the four to five months it took the first wave of iPhone apps to materialize. It’s probably too soon to tell if either platform has an advantage in terms of making developers more productive.
The upshot is that Apple may need to allow greater control over the iPhone to third-party developers than it currently does. The GPhone itself is a vast improvement over the software offered on most smart phones — including what Palm (PALM) offers on the Treo.
Overall, though, the device lacks charm, character, verve and style. That may change with future versions. With Android’s entry into the world of software development, the choice of third-party applications for phones will expand, which is a good thing for consumers, in the end.