Android Teases Me

by , Nov 20, 2008, 2:34 PM
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If you want a glimpse of a wildly promising mobile future, grab some geek buddy's T-Mobile G1 phone and fire up the ShopSaavvy app. Integrated with the phone's camera, you can aim the device at any product UPC code and pull down product details, online pricing and shopping opportunities, Web site references, and reviews, when available. Of course suppliers like Mobot and ScanBuy have been working with this sort of visual search model for a while, But I have never seen the mobile scanning process implemented so smoothly and with such tight integration with the hardware. Best of all, the process delivers information that is rich and relevant to the user, not just to an advertiser.

My iPhone can't do that, but I don't want to get into a platform skirmish over the relative merits of the two systems. I am sure they will co-exist, and both move our conception of mobility forward substantially. I don't believe the HTC G1 phone is the smoothest execution of Android we will see. The unit itself is bulky, the keyboard frustrating, and it requires reorienting the screen to move into typing mode. GPS proved to be downright inaccurate in several cases for me, which hobbled some of the Google mapping functions. As more OEMs take their crack at Android, we are sure to see a range of successes and failures, and that may confuse the market. On the other hand, its sheer openness allows for even deeper penetration than the still-cooler iPhone.

The Android experience for me thus far feels more Web-like, courtesy of Google's development role and prominent placement throughout. The Google search bar is on the home page, and it delivers the usual snappy results, albeit without enough attention paid to mobile-friendly content. Gmail, Google calendaring, contacts, and even IM services are all a button away, so the phone seems more directly plugged into the Web services model than anything I have used before. While iPhone relies on iTunes and so the Desktop connection, Android floats more noticeably on a Web cloud. Like all things Google, it seems to have been designed by nerds for nerds. Everything is a little more cluttered with pop-up menus and features, which can be good, than the iPhone, which puts a premium on simplicity, even at the cost of features.

Arguably, the Android browser is easier to use than just about any mobile browser. This is where the multiple input options come into play. Pinching, spreading, and tapping microscopic links gets old for me on the iPhone, but Android's browser fits columns to screens and adjusts text more effectively. I just don't have to zoom as much. The trackball is a big help, for link navigation. Overall, the Android Web experience is actually truer to the desktop than the iPhones, but not by a lot.

The Android multimedia playback functionality really needs work. An Amazon MP3 store app does a good job of plugging you into that site's DRM-free library, but the absence of G1 on-board memory (you need a memory card) and even the missing headphone jack are disappointments. There is no dedicated video playback function or video library other than the YouTube app. Video does play back fairly well in the Weather Channel and YouTube apps where I found it, but Google is leaving it to third parties to develop video playback tricks and even video recording. Video podcasting is such an integral part of my mobile media experience now that the G1 leaves a big hole for me personally.

The Google connections, which are deep and well integrated throughout, are good for Googleholics. The real promise of Android for the rest of us is in its openness and the ways in which developers can link apps like ShopSavvy so smoothly with core hardware without running afoul of Apple or AT&T's business models. There are already several Android marketplaces, for instance, and all the major IM options are available in the main messaging client. Again, this feels more like the open Web than Apple's tended garden, and it reminds us just how restrictive the iPhone can be.

As for the apps themselves, we will have to wait for more developers to see some coolness to Android. The absence of high profile branded media entries here is noticeable. Weather Channel has its app here, and it is very similar to the very fine iPhone version. MySpace is here with a rudimentary app, but still no Facebook. Games like Pac-Man have multiple input options, including the excellent trackball. But at many points you feel as if Android's need to embrace a range of possible hardware adds a layer of complexity and undermines the seamlessness of the best iPhone apps with touch and accelerometer controls. In talking to agencies that are actively developing branded apps and ad networks for the iPhone, most acknowledge Android being on their to-do list, but I have yet to hear tremendous enthusiasm.

I would hate to see marketers overlook Android because it has that Google Web-geek patina and lacks the coolness of Apple. Pretty much all the things we like about the iPhone and App Store eco-system are here, as are a few things that Apple misses. The key features, a usable Web, interoperability among apps and features, and a sensible mobile interface, are here. Unlike the Samsung Instinct or Verizon Dare, the G1 is less about the hardware than the OS. In fact, better hardware (plus a better 2G/3G network) will only improve Android's appeal -- potentially with a larger base. It moves us in the same positive direction the iPhone initiated, and I think most people would be more than happy with some flavor of Android-powered phone. For Apple, the threat is that there is a true viable alternative. The gap between the iPhone and everything else just got filled.

0 comments on "Android Teases Me ".

  1. Steve Smith from Mediapost
    commented on: November 25, 2008 at 9:58 a.m.

    Tim,

    Add to that fragmentation recent evidence that the iPod Touch has better game perforamnce than the iPhones. apparently they increased the CPU speed in the new generation. See. this post:

    http://www.iphonealley.com/news/2nd-gen-ipod-touch-faster-game-device-than-iphone-3g

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