First look at the T-Mobile G1

The first smartphone based on Google's Android marries a sophisticated HTC handset with software features that outmaneuver iPhone

On October 22, T-Mobile will reap the benefits of its founding membership in the Open Handset Alliance. Through an exclusive partnership with Google and Asian handset manufacturer HTC, the T-Mobile G1 will become the first shipping mobile device based on the Android platform.

Google and company have worked hard to make the T-Mobile G1 both affordable and easy to use. And while it's too soon to know how far developers will take the open source Android platform, we now know what to expect from the first Android phone to arrive on store shelves.

[ For details on the T-Mobile G1's availability, pricing, service plans, and their limitations, see Tom Yager's report from the launch event. ]

The T-Mobile G1's hardware design will be familiar to users of HTC's Windows Mobile handsets, a lineup that includes the AT&T/Cingular 8525 and T-Mobile's own Wing, both of which I reviewed for InfoWorld and continue to use (see "Smartphones for extreme mobility"). This mature design, with fashionably subtle tactile buttons underneath the display, incorporates a touch screen that's sensitive to both fingertip and stylus, as well as a slide out full QWERTY keyboard. (In T-Mobile G1's case, the keyboard swivels out in a half-moon motion while remaining parallel to the display.) That's right, it's got actual keys that don't take up any space on the screen, and the keyboard disappears when you don't need it. When you flip out the keyboard, the display rotates from portrait to landscape view -- again, mimicking the behavior of HTC's Windows Mobile line.

As implemented on the T-Mobile G1, the Android user interface incorporates an iPhone-like flick gesture to scroll and to flip among multiple pages in a document. HTC debuted this feature as TouchFlo in some of its latest Windows Mobile handsets, and it will be built into its upcoming Touch Diamond and Touch Pro handsets as well. HTC's implementation of the slide-out keyboard works extremely well. Android's context menus, activated by a touch-and-hold gesture, are presented as large buttons that fill the width of the display. The menus provide cut and paste of multiple object types (text, graphics, HTML) across applications. The Android platform is fully multitasking, supporting multiple simultaneous foreground applications as well as software services that run in the background (daemons) without user interfaces. The flick gesture also sweeps through pages in a document, supplants tabs in the browser, and pages through icons on the home screen. An application window can be pushed off or pulled onto the display like a window shade, making multiple running apps easy to access. Incidentally, the design of the browser seems more derived from Nokia's S60 WebKit-based browser than from Google's Chrome.

Context menus, cut and paste, and multitasking are among UI features that set a sharp contrast with T-Mobile G1's clearest competitor, iPhone. And, of course, Android's UI is fully customizable, from skinning and themes to completely trashing it and replacing it with something else. The full-on gearhead will distinguish himself or herself by brandishing a text console as the primary UI. I'd bet a week's pay that work on a convincing iPhone skin is already underway.

The very Google applications that help define iPhone, namely Google Maps and the YouTube viewer, are present on the T-Mobile G1 as well, but with a bit of a kick. T-Mobile demonstrated street-level maps that include photographs of landmarks that match the user's perspective. Using the device's GPS and accelerometer, the T-Mobile G1 becomes a sort of viewfinder: As you turn yourself around and tilt the device, the display shows what Google Maps thinks the scene in front of you should look like. This it deduces from where it thinks you are or plan to go, the direction it thinks you're facing, and the photograph that it thinks is most recent and relevant.

If you're standing in front of a tall building, for example, tilting the phone upward is supposedly like looking upward. It might beg the question, "Why not just look up or around?" Just keep in mind that the landmark you're viewing is probably where you're going, not necessarily where you are, and when you're trying to navigate a picture can be worth a thousand turn-by-turn directions. It'll also be a boon in those canyons that GPS cannot penetrate. You can get your bearings visually as long as Maps' database has images for the vicinity. I'm looking forward to playing Google Urban Sprawl, driving around to find strip malls that photos in Google Maps show as empty lots, and we'll all have fun with the Photoshop send-ups that Google users send in to represent lesser-known landmarks.

For mobile media addicts, the T-Mobile G1 will provide a richer and more extensible experience than other mobile platforms. The music player supports every unencrypted audio format in the wild. I have similar expectations for the video player, and I'm certain that whatever Google failed to include in the T-Mobile G1's video player will be supplied by others. Streaming playback was not discussed, but T-Mobile's 1GB plan is more suited to streaming audio than video. The device's 1GB internal storage doesn't leave much room for downloaded content. The scant specifications do not include mention of expandable memory, but if the T-Mobile G1 doesn't have a memory slot, it would be the first HTC QWERTY handset without it.

The T-Mobile G1 has a three-megapixel camera with auto-focus. The specifications don't indicate whether there is a flash or an LED light. Light or no light, don't expect a lot from the camera. Historically, the quality of cameras in HTC devices has been mediocre to poor. I have an HTC handset with a three-megapixel, auto-focus camera that may be a match for the one in the T-Mobile G1, and it is a pitiful thing. A good share of the blame for this rests with the software. Even iPhone's notoriously lame camera is capable of far better than Apple can derive from it, including movies, when hacked via software. If developers can get to the T-Mobile G1's CMOS sensor at the metal level, they'll push it to lengths exceeding what Google supplies with the phone. Incidentally, it escapes me, in this era of video blogging and live streaming, why handset makers marketing to North America remove the user-facing cameras that European models incorporate.

As one would expect, Google is hosting the cloud for T-Mobile G1. Gmail push e-mail, Google Talk IM, and Google's online calendar and contacts Web apps will provide mail and sync services. It was unclear at the launch whether calendar and contact updates would be pushed as well, in the manner that Microsoft Exchange and Apple's MobileMe do. Google did state that there will be no desktop sync client, so it clearly intends to handle whatever sync the T-Mobile G1 is capable of out of the box via wireless connection.

Google isn't making any effort to keep Yahoo! and AOL out of this game. T-Mobile G1 won't ship with Exchange Server ActiveSync connectivity. IMAP and POP pull protocols provide connections to mail servers of all stripes, but they don't provide a company or user-hosted sync back end. Expect that to take a couple of months. Google and T-Mobile are credible when they claim, as all mobile platform marketers do, that third parties will fill T-Mobile G1's functionality gaps. Open source developers are certain to do that, with record speed and enormous variety, albeit with equally enormous variations in quality, stability, and documentation.

The market as a whole will need reassurance that the T-Mobile G1 is nothing to be afraid of. T-Mobile, HTC, and Google have each shown the ability to target the broadest possible audience. How their combined work will play remains to be seen. We know this much: Open is good. Now that open source champions have what they want, it's their responsibility to see that Google, HTC, and T-Mobile get paid for delivering it. If the platform is somehow imperfect as delivered, they can download Google's SDK and improve it. No other mobile platform affords developers that option.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.