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T-Mobile’s Google Phone Promising but Unpolished

I’ve had my hands on the T-Mobile G1 with Google this last week, the first release of a smartphone using the Open Handset Alliance’s Android platform – a platform initially developed and still heavily influenced by Google. The T-Mobile phone was made by HTC, a leading Windows Mobile handset maker, and while it has many drawbacks, it shows a lot of potential. The phone starts shipping 22-Oct-08 from T-Mobile in the United States, and next month in the UK. (For more background on Android, see the now somewhat inaccurately titled, “Google’s View of Our Cell Phone Future Is an Android, Not a GPhone,” 2007-11-12.)

Over at Ars Technica, I wrote up a first impressions article which largely compared the G1 with the iPhone (both the first and second generation models). The G1 lacks a lot of the polish that the very first iPhone had out of the box in June 2007, not to mention the refinements that have come since.

But it’s also clear that – given that Android will run on any hardware that makers choose to design, and that Android can be expanded in ways that Apple doesn’t and will never allow – there’s a lot of room to fix and grow.

The iPhone is a closed platform, with developers needing to use Apple as a gatekeeper for constrained applications. Android, by contrast, is all about openness: open source (not the whole platform yet, but that’s the goal), with a commitment by carriers to allow any phone running any software accessing any service. (There are some limits to make sure networks aren’t overrun, but the intent is that those limits are slight compared to most current carrier restrictions.)

The components that come with the G1 are quite similar to the iPhone, and some BlackBerry and Windows Mobile phones. The G1 pairs a touch screen with a slide-out keyboard, a combination that’s found on very few phones. It also has the laundry list of radios – 3G, GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth – and what seemed to me a very decent 3-megapixel camera with auto-focus. Despite all these components, the G1 and Android currently seem unexceptional, but I don’t expect them to remain so. (The touchscreen only allows single finger gestures, by the way: slide and tap, notably. Apple has patents on multi-touch technology, and that might be constraining HTC.)

For instance, a persistent irritation I had with the G1, echoed by most other reviews, was dealing with the orientation of the phone for basic tasks. You can use the G1 in a portrait mode, with the touchscreen and a few buttons dominating the action, or in slide-out mode, with the keyboard exposed and the screen automatically changing to landscape orientation. This part makes perfect sense.

But despite having a built-in accelerometer, no software I used (including the main multi-page screen, which is rather clever) detected changes in motion. If you want to view a Web page in landscape mode, you must slide open the keyboard; and portrait mode requires the keyboard be closed. (I downloaded an application from Market, Google’s in-beta and currently all-free software store, that let me confirm the accelerometer was on and active. It was.)

There’s more. The touchscreen has no glass keyboard, which is the only way of entering information on an iPhone. So when you’re browsing in portrait mode and need to enter even a word or two on the browser, you must slide open the keyboard, which changes the browser’s orientation to landscape, and then type in what you want. This is tedious and something I also expect can be easily changed: even if the Open Handset Alliance doesn’t opt for a glass keyboard addition, a developer could add such support, or a Web browser maker like Opera could add the feature to a browser they offer as an alternative.

Clearly, adding support for seamless orientation changes will be something we see in revised Android releases for its built-in apps, and it’s something developers could add in third-party programs right away.

It’s funny how much the initial iPhone seemed like a complete release, even with all the subsequent software releases and the critical addition of 3G to the second model and the App Store for third-party programs. (With regard to the most glaring omission in the iPhone, the G1 does have a copy and paste feature. Alas, I haven’t yet figured out precisely where it works! Apparently it’s active only within certain text fields and requires a keyboard shortcut.)

Android and the G1 so far seem more like an interesting prototype, and as such a lot of reviewers cut the phone slack in anticipation of what’s to come. I’d rather review the phone I have in front of me, but it’s easy to see how Google and its partners could move light years beyond this first release by the middle of next year.

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