How will Android compare to the iPhone?

Google's lack of its own hardware platform may be a disadvantage, says Tim Haddock

Google's Android is an open-source operating system meant to give smart phone manufacturers a powerful platform on which to base their phones. It's even been touted as a challenger to Apple's iPhone OS.

But iPhone users have grown accustomed to thinking about phone hardware and software as part of a unified whole. So the first Android-running smart phone bears the burden of representing Android to the world. The Google-backed G1's user experience will be a function of the HTC hardware, the Google Android platform, and service provider (T-Mobile) combined. How will the G1 introduced last month — and scheduled for release later this month — stack up next to the Apple gold standard?

"Apple's business is to be three steps ahead of everyone else. Apple is still two steps ahead," says Gene Munster, senior research analyst at investment bank Piper Jaffray, on the launch of the G1.

The hardware

The philosophy of the G1 device is straightforward. Begin with an iPhone-like touch screen-based smart phone, then add all the features that critics wish the iPhone had. And knock US$20 off the 8GB iPhone 3G's US$199 price.

A trackball and flip-out QWERTY keyboard may appeal to business people used to typing on their BlackBerries. A memory slot will let you swap microSD memory cards, and a removable battery means you can carry a spare. And the G1's 3-megapixel camera should be an improvement over the iPhone's 2-megapixel camera.

Of course, all these extra slots, keys, and buttons carry a cost. At .62 inches thick and 5.6 ounces in weight, the G1 is more than 25% thicker and nearly 20% heavier than the iPhone 3G. If you're a fan of the iPhone's sleek, single-button approach, you could find the G1 a tad chunky and inelegant.

The G1, the first Android-based smart phone, has a lot to prove.

And then there are limitations. The G1's touch screen doesn't support multi-touch, and the unit's accelerometer won't recognise that you want to use the screen in landscape mode unless you open the keyboard. Also conspicuously absent from the G1 is a standard headset jack. So if you want to listen to music or watch video, you'll need a special headphone adapter to connect to its proprietary design. (The original iPhone had a recessed headphone jack requiring an adapter for many third-party headphones; Apple ditched that design in the iPhone 3G). Finally, the G1's memory slot will only support expansion up to a maximum of 8GB — not very impressive when you consider that the iPhone 3G ships with 8GB standard for US$199, or 16GB for US$299. (You can, of course, buy multiple expansion cards for a G1).

The service provider

Thankfully, T-Mobile has already backed off on a planned 1GB monthly data cap for G1 service. This should let users take better advantage of the smart phone's capabilities. Unfortunately, when the G1 launches on October 22, T-Mobile's 3G network will only cover 22 markets in the US, jumping to 27 in November. In comparison, AT&T's 3G network covers more than 275 markets, with up to 350 covered by year's end. (Like the iPhone, G1 users will have the option of using T-Mobile's slower EDGE network, or existing wi-fi networks.)

The software platform

As you would expect from a Google-based smart phone, the G1 appears to do a very solid job integrating Google applications including Gmail, Google Talk, and most impressively, Maps. Google Maps' Street View, coupled with the G1's GPS capabilities, will actually pan the first-person perspective screen image as you pivot the phone, helping you orient yourself with photographic landmarks. (It is rumored that the next update to the iPhone software will include Street View as well).

Buyers may be surprised to discover that the G1 does not ship with an extensive library of pre-installed software or games. It does come with a few neat apps such as ShopSavvy, which allows you to comparison-shop online by scanning product barcodes using the built-in camera. Ecorio will help you track your carbon footprint, and, unlike iPhone apps, it can actually run in the background. The Amazon MP3 store will let you browse millions of songs using the 3G network, but wi-fi is required to purchase and download music.

But don't expect to be able to sync your G1 with iTunes. In fact, don't expect to sync your G1 with your desktop computer at all. That could make life tough for Outlook users, and may scare away potential business users attracted by the device's added keyboard.

New software will be available for download using the beta version of the Android Market, Google's answer to Apple's App Store. But analyst Gene Munster warns that users could find the process of downloading and installing Android apps significantly less straightforward than they have come to expect based on experience with Apple's App Store.

Developer perspective

Apple has come under fire by iPhone developers for restrictive non-disclosure requirements since lifted and arbitrariness when it comes to selecting which applications to include in its App Store. Will frustrated developers jump eagerly to Google Android's open-source approach? Carl Howe, enterprise research director for technology research and consulting firm Yankee Group, speculates that the opposite may be the case.

"From a developer's point of view, [Android's] openness is trumped by having a consistent platform," said Howe. "With the iPhone, there's one screen size. There's one interface. The SDK is designed to make it really easy to develop software. But most importantly they have a way to monetize that software quickly."

That said, Google Android's open-source, free market approach means that canny developers could build in device functionality, like VoIP via wireless, that service providers might now want — and that Apple would never allow to see the light of day.

So why are handset providers so fond of Google Android? By opting for Google's open OS, manufacturers save $2 to $10 per unit, said Howe. "Android is for handset makers, and the iPhone is for users".

The possibilities of Google Android's open approach may be endless, but whether and when such possibilities are realised remains to be seen. For the foreseeable future, Apple's seamless user experience gives iPhone the clear edge.

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