Spoutin' Off: New T-Mobile phone competes with iPhone

By Michael Rau

October 7, 2008

So, if you stay on top of technology news, you've probably heard some of the buzz surrounding the release of the new T-Mobile smartphone that uses the Google Android operating system, scheduled for release on October 22nd.

I thought I'd spend a little time this week trying to cut through the spin and counterspin, and provide some straight information, with some opinion thrown in for good measure.

First off: Exactly what is “Google Android”? In a nutshell, it's an operating system for mobile devices. As it stands, it would probably be considered most comparable to the Windows Mobile or Palm platforms.

What makes Android different and important is that it's built on Linux, which means the basic code is open-source. Thus, it should be much more accessible to third-party developers than other current mobile platforms.

That's not to say it's unique. There are other Linux-based mobile platforms out there. But they remain relatively obscure and unused, perhaps due to lack or resources for further development and marketing.

That's where Google comes in. The technology behemoth's acquisition, development, and marketing of Android puts this platform in a class by itself in terms of exposure and resources for development.

And what about the phone to be offered by T-Mobile?

It's called the G1, and according to published reports, its features include downloadable applications, a touch screen, 3G data service (T-Mobile has a fairly small 3G network right now), WiFi, a 3-megapixel camera, 256 MB of storage, a microSD slot, a slideout keyboard and a full web browser (although I have some questions about this claim).

The phone itself has actually been on the market for a while as the Dream. It's manufactured by a lesser-known mobile device maker called HTC, and was originally engineered to run the Windows Mobile platform.

As techies have been pouring over the specs for the phone, the operating system, and the service to be offered by T-Mobile, they've identified some issues I'd consider serious. Among them is the fact, and I suppose this isn't a shock, that he device is inexorably tied to a specified Google account, and pretty much all your online activities will have to run through that.

The obvious reason for this is it serves as a vehicle to drive traffic to Google's branded products.

Also, while the device will play YouTube videos through its quasi-browser, it won't play back actual digital video files, either stored on the device or on the SD card. It will play music and other audio files.

Not surprisingly, there's been much speculation amongst us media folk as to whether the G1 represents a serious threat to Apple's iPhone.

In a word: No.

The phone itself, while comparable with other premium smartphones, has nowhere near the technical sophistication of the iPhone. But then, no other smartphone does (at least yet).

But more importantly, and as I've mentioned in my coverage of the iPhone, it's all about the operating system.

The version of OS X used on the iPhone is currently leaps and bounds more powerful than any other mobile platform. Period. That's why when you see ads from other manufacturers trying to compete with the iPhone, you never see any comparable features – just some occasional “light” version of the same type of app.

That's not to say that the situation will remain this way. The coolest thing to me about the Android platform is its potential.

If Google loosens up a bit, particularly in terms of tying the system so tightly to their own branded products, and third-party developers are allowed to create applications for the platform, Android could eventually surpass the iPhone in terms of functionality.

Of course, it would also help if they could find a handset that approached the iPhone's level of technical sophistication. Other handset manufacturers have expressed interest in Android, and this can do nothing but drive greater development for the platform.

Even Motorola has mentioned Android with obvious interest, and since they've often been at the cutting edge of handset development, they could possibly put together the hardware to compete.

This will be particularly true if Apple maintains its stranglehold on developers and those developers decide to abandon their platform in favor of one that's more accessible for development. Many applications submitted to Apple for the iPhone have been summarily rejected, usually with no reason given, although to me, it's all about suppressing competition for their own apps.

A sufficient fear of true competition could compel Mr. Jobs and company to loosen up a bit themselves. I hope Android generates such fear.

So if you're adverse to buying an iPhone and are looking for an equal alternative, there isn't one yet.

But if you want to get in on the front-end of what may, in the long-term, prove to be a more robust and open system than that of the iPhone, you may want to toddle down to your local T-Mobile dealer after October 22nd, and check out the new G1.

Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.

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