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Uninformed Comment: The T-Mobile G1 and Google Android

No inside information here, just sniping from the sidelines and reading the trade press. And these opinions are, of course, strictly personal.

I admit it. I doubted if Android would ever make it into a real device that people pay real money for. Mobile phone operating systems are tricky things. It’s all very well being able to demo a few apps, but the issues that matter are the unsexy ones of dropped calls, battery life, device drivers, network coverage and the like. And it looked to me like Google had done the prototype stuff but left a lot of these unsexy details, together with the actual risk of putting together and selling a phone, to the device manufacturers and the network carriers. It’s a lot like the Symbian OS model,except that Symbian was largely driven by a device manufacturer (Nokia) until its recent transformation into an open source foundation.The incentives don’t seem to me to align in a promising way. Google gets the ad revenue of course, but what’s in it for the device manufacturers and carriers? Why would a device manufacturer undertake all the risky grunt work while Google gets to play the cool California kid, philosophizing about the future of mobile and turning up to press conferences on roller blades? And while openness sounds great, it’s the network carrier who has to invest in building up its 3G network and worry about supporting all those customers complaining about the first badly written app that makes their phone unusable.Well, it turns out there are reasons after all. From what I can see it’s about balance of power as much as anything.

  • HTC makes a lot of devices, but until now it has been largely dependent on Microsoft as a software provider. Having an alternative in the shape of Google lets HTC hedge its bets, and gives it a bargaining chip when dealing with Microsoft.
  • Meanwhile T-Mobile, competing against AT&T’s iPhone in the cool smartphone market, has been largely dependent on BlackBerry as a device provider. Having an alternative in the shape of HTC/Google gives them a bargaining chip when dealing with RIM.

But enough of this industry stuff, what about the technology? Nancy Gohring of IDC surely has it right when she says that “Google Android is about advertising, not the enterprise”. The lack of Exchange integration was dismissed by Android head honcho Andy Rubin as ” a great opportunity for a third-party developer to step in and create something”, which is just another way of saying “not important enough for us to do ourselves”.

The openness claim seems to come down to the availability of the Android Market, and time will tell how that goes. Right now it’s all about the Google Apps. Gmail, Google Maps, Google Docs. It’s ironic that the major function of this open platform is to deliver these wholly-owned applications to the end user.As the always entertaining Cade Metz writes,

Google says it believes in open access to the US airwaves. It trumpets open mobile platforms where all apps are created equal. But like so many American phones before it, the T-Mobile G1 is locked to a single wireless network. And if you buy the thing, you’ll be force fed a veritable smörgåsbord of software from the Oompah Loompahs inside the Mountain View Chocolate Factory, including Google search, Gmail, Google Maps, Google Street View, Google Talk, Google Calendar, and, of course, GooTube.

And while I’m sniping, is it just me or is the Streetview thing a bit silly? Sure it’s cool and technologically it’s hugely impressive, but it’s much better demo ware than it is a useful application. When IDG’s Dan Hystedt says “You pan the G1 up and view the screen as if it’s the LCD viewfinder on a digital camera, and you’re looking at building tops or into trees. Pan down and you can see if anyone dropped some coins on the street. Pan around for an entire 360 degree view of the street from where you are, including taxis, buildings, or a guy walking down the street eating a sandwich” well you just have to laugh if you stop and think a moment. And here is what he says of ShopSavvy, the app he tries from the Android Market:

“ShopSavvy turns the G1′s on-board 3-megapixel camera into a price tag scanner. It starts to scan immediately when ShopSavvy is on, no need to snap a photo or anything. Just run a red line in the middle of the viewfinder over a barcode and it scans the information.

It took me a few tries to scan the barcode of the book, ‘Execution’ by Larry Bossidy, which was one of the few things at HTC’s office with a barcode. But once I got it, it only took several seconds to navigate to a site with a book review and other information, as well as suggestions on where to buy. It costs $21 new at, or $2.50 used at, while the retail price listed inside the cover of the book itself was $27.50.”

Sure it could be useful occasionally, but for most purposes the last time I want to find out about the price of a product is when I’ve got so far as to be standing in front of it.

But I may be wrong of course. The use of the camera as a bar-code scanner could well be a big thing, because this is one of the reasons why ruggedized handhelds still go places smartphones can’t. If the barcode scanner gets made obsolete by the digital camera then enterprise apps on smartphones will grow by leaps and bounds.

And in the end, the T-Mobile G1 is just the first step in the evolution of the Google phone. I’d be silly to say I knew where this thing will be in twelve months time. But it will be fascinating finding out.

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One Comment

  1. One example I read (can’t remember where) that might make Streetview more useful is enhancing it to add labels.
    Think Google Earth, where the map shows you labels of all of the things you are looking at (filterable of course).
    That would make it mush easier to find addresses, or simply figure out if there is anything worth visiting on a particular street.
    This could be very useful to the many directionally-impaired people out there.

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