Archive for October, 2008

First thoughts on the T-Mobile G1

October 26th, 2008

I bought a G1 on Wednesday for personal use and wanted to jot down my initial thoughts about the experience so far.

First some background. I’ve been using an iPhone for the past 16 months, a 3G model since July. I can say without reservations that my two iPhones are the best mobile communication devices I’ve ever owned. They have a few warts: a so so network; no built-in IM client; a promised but still unshipped asynchronous message delivery system to offset the inability to run 3rd-party apps in the background; a keyboard that is usable, but nothing more; a profoundly inconvenient purchase process since the 3G arrived; and battery life that is too short given that there is no way for the user to swap in a fresh battery. But, to my tastes, all of these issues are well offset by the device’s stunningly intuitive interface to a set of functionality that has fundamentally changed the way that I use both voice and data while mobile.

This isn’t exaggeration. After years spent trying dozens of so-called “smartphones”, the iPhone is the first mobile device I’ve actually loved and, more importantly, found useful enough to keep by my side every waking hour of every day.

On to the G1. I’m actually a huge fan of the spirit on which the Android platform has been developed. I believe that building open, flexible software and hardware platforms is an extremely powerful way to nudge markets. The specific nudge that Android appears to be providing is further blurring the line between personal computer and cell phone in terms of capabilities, and, at the same time attempting to create a vibrant application ecosystem with 3rd-party participation and all the right basic conditions for disruptive innovation. Primary among those basic conditions are giving 3rd-party developers a set of coherent APIs consistent across devices and carriers, through those APIs providing non-restrictive access to device hardware and carrier data networks, and then allowing developers to access their potential customers with as few restrictions as possible.

I bought a G1 mostly out of curiosity. I wanted to see how far it advanced the grand vision above, and, I wanted to see how it stacked up to the iPhone. My one sentence review after carrying it side-by-side with my iPhone for a half a week: it would probably be my favorite phone ever if I had never seen an iPhone.

The good:

  • The integration with Google services is incredibly good. After typing in my Gmail address and password, I had mail, chat, and e-mail contacts at my fingertips ready to go.
  • Did I mention that I had chat at my fingertips? Presence information for my contacts is shown in the app and in the contact manager. The real kicker though: instant messages are delivered via the top-of-screen notification area even if you’re not “in” the chat app when the message arrives.
  • Street View in the maps app is very, very cool. Aside from being cool, I find this feature pretty useful when planning trips to places you’ve never been before. I use it a lot online to double-check addresses and to get a quick visual sense for where I’m going. This is very handy to have while mobile.
  • The ShopSavvy 3rd-party app provided my “holy crap this is cool” moment for Android and the G1. This app uses the G1 camera to scan product bar codes and then looks up information about the products online. I did this for a Ruby book after installing the app and got links to the book from multiple online booksellers complete with prices, reviews, etc. I can see myself using this a lot to get reviews on books while browsing at B&N.
  • The device is relatively cheap at $200 and $25/month for unlimited 3G data. I took the cheapest voice plan that T-mobile has ($30/month in my area). My 2 year TCO will be $1520 less taxes and fees. 2 year TCO for an 8GB iPhone 3G with the cheapest monthly plan is $1880 less taxes and fees.

The not-so-good:

  • The G1 device itself is nowhere near as satisfying from a design perspective as the iPhone. It looks like any other cell phone. In other words like a plain, black brick. It’s screen is slightly smaller than the iPhone. It’s slightly heavier than the iPhone. It doesn’t feel as good in my hand as an iPhone. It’s easier to flip the screen up to expose the keyboard with your left hand than it is with your right, which doesn’t make a huge amount of sense given that only 8-15% of the population is left-handed. Once the screen is flipped up and the keyboard is exposed, there is a slight slant making the bottom of the screen not quite parallel with the top of the keyboard. Most people might not even notice this slant. You can bet Steve Jobs would. :-)
  • The Android/G1 UI is reasonable, but not nearly as intuitive or easy to use (in my opinion) as the iPhone. I’ve found myself hunting around to find apps, application functions, and the location of settings than I ever did on the iPhone. A great example of a flawed G1 user experience is setting up your voice mail box. This is done via a voice menu system–unlike the iPhone where you do it entirely via the phone’s software. The thing I found especially irritating about this process is that I didn’t know where the speaker phone functionality was when I was setting up the inbox (you have to press the ‘Menu’ hard button to bring up a soft menu containing the speaker phone option) which meant that I had to keep moving the phone from my ear (to hear the next menu option) to my front (so that I could make the appropriate selection). Invariably between these moves, the G1’s screen would go blank and lock, and I would have to fumble through the unlock sequence to get access to the keyboard again. Granted, most people only set up your voice mail once. But the experience was irritating and one of my first impressions of the device. I don’t think Apple would miss such a detail.
  • The G1 doesn’t integrate with iTunes or the iTunes Music Store for music and video content. Prior to the introduction of the iPhone I wouldn’t have counted that as a negative. Now, however, I use my iPhone a lot to listen to music and videos I’ve downloaded from IMS. I’m not ready to part with these features, nor am I enthused about having to carry around an iPod in addition to a phone.
  • I like the iPhone App Store better than the Android Marketplace. There are way more apps available in the App Store than in the Marketplace, although that may change with time. The Android Marketplace doesn’t support paid applications yet. This may slow the development of the android app ecosystem and limit the number of available apps until the Marketplace allows developers to monetize their work directly. (Google shouldn’t underestimate the ability of stories like the Trism success to motivate people to develop apps. This is especially important given that iPhone has a larger installed base and a head start on the 3rd-party apps market. And then there’s the matter of app discovery. Again to my tastes, it’s a lot easier to discover apps from iTunes on my Mac than it is on either the iPhone App Store or the Android Marketplace hosted on the two respective phones. Neither iPhone nor G1 have an especially good on-phone user experience for app discovery.
  • I keep my calendar and contact information in iCal and Apple Address Book respectively. There is no apparent way, without a complicated dance involving 3rd-party software and copying my information into Google Calendar and it’s contact manager, to synchronize this information from my Mac to my G1. That’s a serious problem and greatly limits my G1’s utility compared to my iPhone’s.
  • The G1 keyboard is pretty bad w.r.t. my fingers. I was really excited that the G1 was going to have a physical keyboard. My inability to type as quickly on the iPhone’s virtual keyboard as I could on Blackberry has been irritating. Unfortunately, the low-profile of the G1 keys makes it hard for me to accurately register my fingers over them, and the lack of throw provides no tactile sensation that a key has been depressed. This amounts to no faster typing on the G1 than the iPhone which is unfortunate.
  • What’s with the retro analog clock? I finally figured out how to delete it, but I wasn’t able to find a setting or 3rd-party app to replace it with something more befitting a modern device.

All things considered, I like the G1, just not enough to displace my iPhone. If I had never seen an iPhone I would probably be annoyingly ebullient in my praise for the G1. I think that it’s incredibly good for consumers and the mobile ecosystem at large that there are two such devices on the marketplace now. These two platforms should do much to push the marketplace in a direction that should be very exciting for consumers and entrepreneurs. In fact, based on what I’ve heard from the Blackberry Developer Conference last week, RIM has some really interesting things in the works. I’m guessing that Nokia will join the fray and that carriers other than AT&T and T-Mobile will be anxious to participate in this acceleration of mobile in the coming months and years.

Exciting times.