Twelve Questions I Still Have About the T-Mobile G1 and Android

By  |  Tuesday, September 23, 2008 at 4:32 pm

We now know a heck of a lot more about T-Mobile’s G1–the first “Googlephone”–than we did last night. But the phone won’t show up for almost another month. So unless you’re lucky enough to be one of the few folks who has one now–such as Walt Mossberg–it’s impossible to answer the most important question about the phone. Which is, of course, “Is it any good?” (Actually even Walt is reserving judgement, although he’s pretty positive overall.)

That leaves plenty of time to ask questions about the phone and the Android OS it’s based on. Such as…

1. How’s the touch interface? The implementation of touch on the iPhone is…well, it’s perfect. It requires no learning, works exactly how you expect it to at all times, and is so generally delightful that you forgive the iPhone for a fair share of shortcomings. I’ve never seen another phone with a touchscreen that comes close–and in particular, I’ve even seen executives from HTC, the G1’s manufacturer, fumble with earlier touch-driven HTC phones such as the Touch. That can’t be a good sign.

The success of the iPhone’s touch UI is due to multiple factors: The hardware is good, the software is great, and Apple did a bang-up job of making them work together. You get the feeling that it was willing to go to any lengths to make the experience flawless. With the G1, however, you have a relatively inexperienced software company (Google) partnering with a hardware company (HTC) that’s never done great touch before. The results seemed to work pretty well in the videos shown during this morning’s launch Webcast, but I was struck by the fact that all the G1 touch examples during the launch were canned–nobody involved in the G1 just used it. By contrast, all of the launches involving the iPhone have involved Steve Jobs and other Apple execs showing off touch in live demos.

2. Does the browser rival Mobile Safari? It’s based on the same Webkit rendering engine, so pages should look similar. But it’s not clear how usable the Android browser is. It does look like zooming in and out, which involves moving a lens around on the page, isn’t as wonderfully intuitive as the iPhone’s pinching and pulling gestures.

3. Will Google avoid a MobileMe-like mess? Its integration of Android with Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Talk sounds a lot like the ambitious things that Apple is doing with MobileMe–and which failed miserably at first. You gotta think that rolling out Web services to vast numbers of people all at once plays more to Google’s strengths than Apple’s, but I want confirmation that all the Google services are running smoothly before I come to any conclusions.

4. Will the G1 feel like a more open device than the iPhone? The Webcast today touted the Android platform’s openness as a defining characteristic. But when two things that help make a phone feel open to consumers came up–the ability to tether it as a laptop modem and to unlock it for use with other carriers–the T-Mobile exec onstage shot ’em down without blinking. Also unknown to me: Whether the App Market software store provided to G1 users will be a true bazaar or a boutique where a number of applications consumers might very well want to buy aren’t allowed. Could someone put a tethering app on the Market? A VoIP one? One that competes with something that T-Mobile would like to sell you?

5. Will Android’s openness be a disaster? Apple keeps saying that the variou ways in which it’s locked down the iPhone are, in part, to prevent flaky applications from screwing up the AT&T network, creating security vulnerabilities, etc., etc. That’s a defensible position. But it’s very different from the one taken by Google and its Open Handset Alliance partners. My sense, though, is that it’s possible to build a locked-down phone based on the open Android platform: The fact that Android is open doesn’t mean that G1 owners will be able to install apps willy nilly (or, if you prefer to look at it this way, to be the victims of dangerous, poorly written software).

6.. How’s the keyboard? It sits in a recessed area with a chunk of phone directly to the right that looks like it would interfere with typing. Walt found it to be “OK, but not great.” I still think that it’s possible to build a phone with a better keyboard than any phone has had to date–if all a manufacturer did was rip off the keyboard from the Psion 5 palmtop I bought eleven years ago, it would be a great leap forward. But the G1 doesn’t seem to be it.

7. What’s with the headphone jack? I can’t fathom how anyone could release a smartphone in 2008 that won’t work with standard headphones, no adapter required. (Then again, I was startled when Apple released the first-generation iPhone a year ago with the same issue.) Headphone jack standardization doesn’t seem to be a high priority with HTC: They made my AT&T Tilt, which, while a fine phone in multiple ways, sports a bizarre USB headphone jack. (Update: According to Ryan Block, the G1 has the same oddball jack.)

8. Are Google and T-Mobile ceding multimedia to Apple? The G1’s inclusion of an Amazon-powered MP3 store sounds neat, but it sounds like the G1 doesn’t attempt to be the entertainment powerhouse that the iPhone is. It comes with a skimpy 1GB of RAM and there’s no way to match the iPhone 3G’s 16GB maximum; it apparently doesn’t include a general-purpose video player or any way to buy movies and TV shows; you can only download music over Wi-Fi, and it’s unclear whether there’s any mechanism for synching the phone’s music library with tunes you’ve stored on a PC. I can understand why Apple would go all out to make the iPhone a great entertainment device–if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be an iPod–and why Google might not be so aggressive. But I’m still curious to see whether the G1 and future Android devices go further with audio and video. Presumably they’ll have to, or folks will stop talking about the phone and the platform as the iPhone’s principal rival.

9. How about gaming? Among the many things that Apple wants the iPhone to be is a serious gaming handheld. I haven’t heard too much about T-Mobile and Google’s plans here. It may not be a great sign that the Webcast this morning spotlighted Pac-Man.

10. Is the T-Mobile network going to be a bummer? During the Webcast, the company laid out its plans for pervasive 3G. At the moment, though, it’s a laggard that’s just now deploying a fast wireless network. We know that the iPhone is a dramatically more pleasing phone when it’s whipping along at true 3G speeds than when it’s bogged down by EDGE. How will the G1 fare? T-Mobile is being careful about selling the phone in areas without 3G–that’s probably a responsible move, but it isn’t a good omen.

11. What’s next after the G1? We’ll never see an iPhone that doesn’t represent Apple’s view–as sound as it is in most respects–of what a phone should be. LG, Motorola, and Samsung are all Open Handset Alliance members, and Sprint and a bunch of international carriers are, too. Android will be far more interesting if it spawns a bunch of radically different devices than if it simply powers a bunch that are kinda sorta like the G1.

12. Is Google in this for the long haul? Apple is clearly putting its all into the iPhone–it seems entirely plausible that the platform, like the Mac, will be around a quarter century after its origin. Google will certainly be around 25 years from now, but I wouldn’t hazard a guess about Android’s longevity at this point. On one hand, Google circa 2008 is serious about mobile software and services and is doing some cool stuff on multiple fronts; on the other, the company has a famously short attention span in some cases.


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4 Comments For This Post

  1. Jason D Says:

    I don’t get the connection here. How does tethering and unlocking make something feel more open? Specifically tethering? Tethering tends to take up more bandwidth and tax a network considerably. That’s why AT&T banned it. Tethering is a sneaky shortcut. Rather than buying a card for your laptop, and paying the fees associated with taxing the network resources more, people want to circumvent that by piggybacking on their phone. Don’t blame Google/T-Mobile for not allowing an option that’s underhanded and at least one other carrier has outright banned.
    Unlocking wouldn’t make sense. As a tradeoff for taking the plunge, T-Mobile has every right to keep the G1 tied to their network, at least for the time being. Which is the case. They’re a service carrier, after all.

  2. Harry McCracken Says:

    Hi, Jason, thanks for the thoughts. I should be clear that in both cases, I know that there are tradeoffs for the carriers–and I’m willing to pay. Carriers offer tethering plans for other phones, at an extra cost, so there’s clearly no fundamental problem with doing so; it’s just that T-Mobile doesn’t do so for the G1, and Apple doesn’t do so for the iPhone.

    Meanwhile, AT&T has cheerfully unlocked a couple of phones I’ve bought from them, and I bought an HTC TyTN II–essentially an unlocked version of the AT&T Tilt. I haven’t heard whether HTC plans to sell an unlocked Dream (aka the G1) or not.

    I think of openness as creating products that let their owners do with them what they want to the greatest degree possible. With both tethering and unlocking, I think it’s possible to do so…and charging more for the ability is fine with me, since tethering involves bandwidth issues and unlocking negates the value to the carrier of subsidy pricing.


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