Thursday, October 23, 2008

Living with an Android

OK, I realize how pedestrian it is to write about a new gadget as that gadget is hitting the streets - and yet, while I normally leave that sort of activity to David Pogue (ha-ha, David. I kid. Really.), this is device worth a bit of mention.

For about 8 months now, I've been extremely happy with my little Nokia N82 - it not only passes the fits-in-jeans-front-pocket test with flying colors, but packs a wallop of a camera (5 megapixel) with geotargeting, easy access to Flickr, great web browsing, tons of seriously useful applications, etc... oh, and I haven't yet smashed this one against a curb. (Sorry, Sony Ericsson PL1, I really am.) So - why did I feel the need to replace it with something bigger, uglier and with a less powerful camera?

Well...not really need so much as curiosity. Being a gadget addict, heavily involved in the mobile industry, and sick to death of the smug satisfication of the iPhone fanboys and girls, the HTC Dream (dubbed the G1 by the T-Mobile marketing folks), the first ever Android phone, was way too compelling to just watch go to my guys' QA lab. I wanted...nay, needed... to live with one for a while. (Besides, T-Mo is offering a 30 day return policy in Cali, so I figured what the hell?)

Going into the T-Mobile store as an existing T-Mobile customer to pick up a G1 was a pretty simple affair. Interestingly, everyone in there was buying a G1, but still I was in and out in under a half an hour. (I spent the longest amount of time deciding between black or bronze. Really. I'm pathetic that way.) Hightailing it back to office, I stuck the SIM card in from my Nokia and fired it up.

From here, I could do one of those pro/con things, but I won't - that way, you'll be forced to read prose rather than bullet points. It's my little way of preserving the English language. Ahem...

The phone itself was a breeze to set up and get running - but, recall, I was already a T-Mobile customer, so take that into consideration. The apps were easy to locate in the Android Market (more on that in a bit), and the T-Mobile 3G network here in San Francisco is quite zippy. I was also delighted to see that my company's mobile web applications (we do mobile video distribution) ran on the G1 without modifications.

First issue hit: getting contacts, calendar and email aligned between this phone and my corporate and personal accounts. The Android platform, you see, doesn't have a native Exchange client - but rather uses the entire Google application suite. I anticipated that this would be a problem for me from the start, since I use Google apps only for my personal life, and not my corporate life. Enter Cemaphore Sytems, and their clever little application MailShadow. Whereas other Google-app-to-exchange sync'ing requires a bunch of crap set up between the corporate exchange server and Google, Cemaphore took a different approach: you already have an exchange client setup on your laptop for Outlook, so, uh, just use that. Sync'ing email, calendar and contacts only took a few minutes once it was set up properly. Voila, I'm running.

Now, because MailShadow requires your laptop running before sync'ing can take place, this wasn't a viable option for email in the long run (calendar and contacts - eh, I can wait until I boot the laptop, not so with email), I just configured the mail client on the G1 to IMAP into our corporate email. Done. Email, contacts and calendar sync'ed perfectly...

...well, almost perfectly. MailShadow doesn't allow for contact pictures to be transferred. But...I like my contact pictures...so, a few minutes hunting around the web revealed this little experiment in funness from Koushik Dutta on his blog My Brain Hurts (free plug there for you Mr. D.) on how to sync Google contacts with Facebook photos. After a quick godless prayer to hope that Mr. D's little app wasn't accidentally erasing my Google contacts, I ran his app and...pictures galore in Google contacts. Ok, now done.

Prediction: as more and more G1 owners run into this problem, MailShadow and Dutta's GoogleFacebookSync are going to become must-have items.

So, now that the phone's set up and I can actually live comfortably with it - how the hell is it?

On one hand, this is a very impressive phone. Is it the prettiest girl at the dance? No,its actually sort of an odd shape - slightly chubbier than its iPhone counterpart, but not that much chubbier. Most of the weight-gain is due to the sliding mechanism for the screen so that it can move out of the way to reveal: ta-da, a keyboard! (My one objection to the N82, and the sole remaining reason I will not purchase an iPhone, is lack of a real keyboard.)

The smattering of applications in the market (and I use the term "smattering" correctly), are almost all 100% useful - no light-saber apps here, just pure goodness. Plus, the lack of Apple iTunes Appstore-esque controls means, of course, apps don't even have to go through the Android Market. (Although it is more convenient for the user if they do.) There are a number of freeware and shareware sites already popping up for quick distribution of these applications. Check out http://www.android-freeware.org/ for several pages of examples of the types of apps you can get.

The most striking thing about the majority of the Android apps is how tightly intergrated they are with the machine's built-in GPS and aGPS systems... not just gratuitous "where's the nearest sushi restaurant" applications (although, believe me, there are plenty of those) but also very clever ideas realized. The app Locale, for instance, will allow you to set configuration properties of your phone based off of where you are currently located. Walking into the office and you don't want your Sex and the City ringtone to go off during a meeting? Locale will detect that you've entered your office building and put the phone in vibrate mode. Efficient, useful, clever and not gratuitous.

Now, the omissions on the G1 are just as striking as the cleverness of much of the phone. There is, for example, no support for A2DP in the firmware of the bluetooth radio, which means of course no bluetooth stereo headsets or speakers. Excuse me?? Really? You're trying to market one of the advantages of this device as being an audio and media player and you don't support A2DP out of the gate? Well, no problem, I'll just plug in my Shure headset and...hey...wtf? There's no jack for a headset? Yup, that's right. Just the goofy USB port on the bottom of the device. Oh sure, HTC sells a dongle that will allow you to plug in the headset, but...wtf?? One more little thingy to lose in the depths of my briefcase?

So, all told, do I think the G1 is going to make a dent in the iPhone onslaught? No, of course not - but, and this is the beauty of Google's Android ecosystem: it doesn't really matter. The very reason that Apple's desktop and laptop market share is so low is their closed ecosystem. They have to make the devices themselves, maintain the OS themselves, and compete against all the other PC makers out there. The result is higher prices and lower market penetration.

The same principle will apply to the Android-vs-iPhone frackus: it doesn't matter that HTC's G1 offering for T-Mobile is lacking A2DP or a headset port or that its, let's face it, kinda ugly. There are two dozen other OEMs in the Android Open Handset Alliance building their own handsets. One of them is going to get it very, very right.

...and that's when things will get very interesting.