A lot of hopes and open-source dreams are riding on a plucky little phone platform called Android, and its public debut on a real-live phone happens Tuesday. Those of us at Lifehacker HQ who didn’t spring for an iPhone, and even some who did, are eager to see how it performs and, more importantly, what kind of useful apps will soon appear for the open Android. That’s not to say we (and many other bloggers) don’t have our reservations and lingering questions. We’ve put together a guide to get you up to speed on the Android platform and the first phone that runs it, along with what we expect, or just hope, to see in Android’s very near future.
What is Android, exactly?
Android isn’t the “Google Phone” or “GPhone.” It’s a (mostly) free and open-source mobile operating system that’s made to run on all kinds of mobile phones, and allow nearly anyone who can program in Java to create and distribute applications for it. Google spilled their plans for Android at the same time—November 2007—they announced that 34 hardware, software, and network companies had signed onto their Open Handset Alliance. In other words, Tuesday’s press hoopla surrounds just the first phone to utilise Android, T-Mobile’s HTC Dream; unless it’s an outright failure, most mobile customers can expect to see their carrier hawking an Android phone in the not-too-distant future.
So what will Android look and feel like? We know that, at least with the Dream, phone users will use the flip-out mini-keyboard to enter text, but rely on a prominent, iPhone-like touch screen for navigation. Of course, if an Android developer wants to build a touch-screen keyboard, there's nothing to stop them. One major difference between any Android phone and Apple's iPhone stems from the Cupertino company's patent application for "multi-touch" features; Android users can't resize their screens by pinching and expanding, or use two fingers to dual-finger scroll, but, other than that, you're flipping between work screens with a finger flick, tapping and dragging icons around, and otherwise manipulating your phone world with your fingers.
Don't take our word for it, though. To see Android in action, check out our sibling Gizmodo's in-depth video tour of Android's 0.9 development environment. The Dream and other Android phones may end up looking different (and, inevitably, deeply branded with your carrier's colours and logos, because you obviously can't remember who you pay all that money each month to), but they'll share the basic navigation, app-launching and phone-using functions explored in that video.
For a real-world Android demonstration on what is almost certainly a working Dream model, check out this video, shot earlier this week at the Google Developers Event in London:
So, should I get my wallet ready or not?
After showing off the HTC Dream Tuesday, T-Mobile might just surprise everyone by making the phone available that day, but most buyers are expecting to grab it in late October. Further US releases will follow, and it shouldn't be too long before we see an Australian carrier with the phone as well.
If you're eager to see how the first Android phone stacks up against the iPhone, here's a side-by-side chart, compiled from the stats released in FCC filings, mostly-confirmed blog leaks, and news releases:
A pure numbers analysis doesn't tell the whole tale, of course. If Android ends up being a lightweight, responsive phone OS, a comparatively weaker phone may end up feeling snappier than the (now) often-buggy iPhone.
If Android delivers on its anything-goes promises, we've got high hopes for it. iPhone owners can be reasonably sure that their phone remains an attractive target for developers, just as OS X continues to pull in software apps. But for those used to praying an application will work on their very particular model, Android should be seriously attractive. Here's a few things your Lifehacker editors, and, most likely, fellow readers, hope to see from a fully-functional Android:
- Calendar, contact and mail syncing without USB cables, iTunes, or third-party, run-once apps.
- Easy to configure computer control with VNC, SSH, Remote Desktop, and other open protocols.
- Location-aware apps to compete with the iPhone—from the results of an Android developers' contest, that's looking very possible.
- Desktop backups and syncing. Can we get that with iterative backups that don't take 5+ minutes? Thanks.
- Real, honest-to-goodness VOIP calling. Because if Android is truly an open platform, this shouldn't be all that hard—right?.
Does Android have a chance?
The huge buzz around an iPhone-killing "Google Phone" died down a bit after Android was revealed, but there's still a lot of optimism amongst openness advocates—as well as those interested in seeing anything the Big G puts out. It's all tempered, though, by the realities of the mobile phone market and open-source environments. Here's our take on whether the Android can thrive:
Yes, it can
- It's open for anything: With Google opening up the Android's SDK to anyone, free of charge, and basing it on Java language that most programmers (often grudgingly) got through in college, there are few limits on the kinds of stupid-cool or uber-useful apps that can be released. We're already expecting to see the full Google suite—Calendar, Gmail, contacts, and more—find a place on the phone, of course, along with many other webapps. But projects like the TuneWiki music player show that already-working software can also find a home on Android. In other words, bring on the phone-activated backup software.
- Google's doing the marketing: The handset makers and cell providers might put big money and time into touting their shiny and new phones, but Google will definitely be driving innovation and spreading the word. In a few short weeks, their Chrome browser jumped into third or fourth place on many web sites' traffic stats, based mostly on news coverage and a tiny link on their home page. Assuming Android doesn't cause a rash of pocket explosions, it'll get good play with phone owners, developers, and a Google-crazed press.
- No lock-in: Most carriers will make Android phones affordable only with two-year contracts, but Android still presents a savvier purchase for those concerned about the iPhone's data portability and proprietary lock-in. There's no iTunes-required activation or SIM chip lock-down, and given the nature of the OS, most of your phone's guts will be open to hack-friendly tools and useful backup features.
Well, then again ...
- The corporate factor: There's a reason Apple put so much effort into touting the iPhone 3G's compatibility with Microsoft Exchange servers and push email. Big compani
es, stuffed with data-hungry managers, are prime customers for mobile companies, and, at least at launch, Android is just as easy to link to proprietary servers and systems as most open-source projects—and that's kind of a put-down. It'll be up to clever hackers to come up with the tools needed to put the Android in an executives' hand, because the firms themselves will just stick with BlackBerry.
- Open-source, closed carriers: As our sibling site has noted, Android's Apache licence allows phone companies to do pretty much whatever they'd like with their code. That means, if they chose to, companies like Verizon and Sprint (and Telstra) could disable or enfeeble parts of the system, and the "Android store" can be filtered to carry only carrier-approved apps. There might be work-arounds in the wild, but the average customer isn't inspired by the phrase "firmware hack."
- The familiar Apple-is-just-easier argument: Back in June, the Wall Street Journal cataloged phone makers and software writers' woes with the constantly-updating, not-quite-polished Android development kit. By comparison, Apple's iPhone development kit is intuitive for anyone developing for OS X, and it's made for one device with pre-configured features. That's kept some folks—like AT&T and Verizon—away from the first round of Android, and if problems persist, well, ask a game console maker what an unfriendly development kit can do for sales.
What's your take?
We've said enough about Google's grand experiment, so let's see your take on the open-source phone and its prospects. Share your thoughts on Android in the comments.
Kevin Purdy, associate editor at Lifehacker, is geared up for an auto-syncing Google Calendar. His feature Open Sourcery appears weekly on Lifehacker.