First impressions of the G1

Someone over on Hacker News asked me what I thought about the new G1 (aka “Google phone”), as compared to the iPhone (which Jamie wrote about here).  I figured those comments would be generally useful to folks thinking about picking between the two coolest phones available right now.  I’ve now had a full day to play with it, and I’ve spent several days tinkering with iPhones, so here’s my off-the-cuff “review” of the new G1.

The hardware is mildly disappointing. Not as nice “feeling” as the iPhone (though the 3G iPhone also now has a plastic back and doesn’t feel as nice as the first-gen iPhone, so I guess things are tough all over), or even as solid feeling as my old Sidekick. When taking the back off to put in the battery and SIM card, I felt like it was going to break. It didn’t, but it felt like it was. Likewise for the little covers for the data/charge port and the SD memory slot…they’re plastic and tiny and feel fragile. The one exception is the keypad, which feels very nice to me.  But, keeping in mind that the G1 is dramatically cheaper than the iPhone 3G ($179 up front and cheaper per month for the plan–though I haven’t actually looked at different plans, I just kept the one I’ve been on, which is about $10 cheaper than iPhone–so $240 over 2 years), I think it’s a great buy, and a whole lot of hardware for a very small price.  I think I probably would have been happy to pay $20 more for slightly sturdier construction, though, particularly on the port cover…I have a bad feeling that it’s going to get broken long before I’m ready to upgrade to a new phone.

Price wasn’t my primary deciding factor (openness was), but it certainly didn’t hurt that I wouldn’t have to pay more per month to upgrade to the G1, while I’d pay out $240 more over 2 years for the iPhone 3G for the same service. I’m going to see if I can drop down to a smaller voice plan–the Sidekick I had before had minimum plan requirements, but I didn’t see any such requirements when signing up for the G1, so I might even be able to save $5 or $10 per month with the G1 over the Sidekick, since I rarely use the phone. I use maybe 100 minutes per month of a 1000 minute plan.

Software-wise, it’s plain awesome. The lack of two-finger gestures, as found on the iPhone, is somewhat disappointing, but it’s no slower to use the popup magnifier buttons, once you’re accustomed to it. Dragging and such is smooth and accurate (seeimngly more accurate than the iPhone, for me, but maybe it just feels that way because the keypad means that I don’t have to use it for typing fiddly stuff, as on the iPhone), so I guess the touch screen is pretty good quality. Since the Android developers are some of the same folks that developed the Sidekick, everything feels very intuitive to me (where, as usual, “intuitive” means, “what I’m used to”). It also has Linux underneath everything, so that may also be a “comfort” factor for me, I’m not sure.

Basic phone features work well and are easy to use, it sounds good and clear, and having Google mail, contacts, calendar, etc. is sweet (my old phone couldn’t handle more than about 500 messages via IMAP, and I get more messages than that in a week, and obviously GMail just works great with practically infinite mail). Web pages look great, and browsing is fast. WiFi was quick and easy to setup. YouTube videos work great, both on 3G and on WiFi. It’s my understanding that T-Mobile’s 3G network is still somewhat small…so if you don’t live in the valley, your mileage may vary, but it works fine for me here in Mountain View.

I installed an Open Source ssh client off of the web called ConnectBot; no jail breaking required, which was a big issue for me with the iPhone. I don’t want to have to have permission to install arbitrary apps that I’ve written or someone else has written. I also installed Compare Anywhere, and a bubble game from the app store, and the quality of everything is really slick. Really impressive for a launch day catalog, especially since everything is free right now. I haven’t spent a lot of time with the apps on the iPhone, so I don’t have much to compare to. But, I’m excited to play with more stuff from the catalog, and I think I’m going to try my hand at writing an app or two for the platform.

Also, it worked right away when I plugged it into my Linux desktop. No futzing around with weird stuff to get music onto the device. The iPhone/iPod is a bitch in that regard. That one thing made me ecstatic in ways I haven’t felt over a device in a long time. Coming off of years of messing around with iPods and an iPhone, and it never quite working right, having a drag and drop music experience is miraculous. Take this with a grain of salt, as I may be strange. I find iTunes incredibly confusing and difficult to use, so on those occasions when I’ve given up on getting Linux to work and rebooted into Windows, or borrowed a friends Macbook, and run iTunes for the purpose of putting music onto the device, I’ve ended up spending a long time futzing around anyway, because I never could figure out what all the syncing options meant or how to use them…so, every time I would fiddle until something happened, and occasionally it would just end up deleting all of my songs either on the PC or the device, and I would give up in disgust. I also have trouble using several other Apple software products, and find them hard to use, so I could just be too stupid to be trusted with a computer without some adult supervision.

I think it will be interesting to see how this battle plays out in the market, and I’m certain that the G1 is just the opening salvo.  Even if the G1 “loses” the battle against iPhone (if selling out all available units even before the launch date can really be considered a “loss” in anyone’s book), and fails to pickup significant market share, there will be another battle in a few months, and the battles will come faster and more furiously as other manufacturers adopt Android.  And each one will wear Apple down, and will open a new front on which Apple will either have to engage or ignore.  For example, very low end phones will come into existence next year that provide smart phone capabilities, as will higher end devices with more capabilities or special purpose capabilities to answer niche markets.  Apple can’t fight on all fronts, and every niche it loses strengthens the value of the Android platform to developers, and thus to end users.  If Android sucked, like Windows Mobile, this wouldn’t be a cause for concern for the folks at Apple.  But Android doesn’t suck.  It’s really nice to use.  As nice as iPhone?  Maybe not…but getting better rapidly (if you tried the last developer release a few months ago, you’ll know that there have been a lot of improvements since then).

As with PC vs. Mac two decades ago, it’s a battle of two different ideologies.  On one side, you have openness: the ability for hardware makers to produce widely varying hardware while still providing the same basic user interface; and on the other, you have a single source eco-system: Apple designs every aspect of its products and can control every element of the user experience, down to the very applications that run on the platform.  Except, this time around, there are two additional elements: the telcos, and Open Source.  While the telcos are going to fight to keep all cell phones locked down pretty tightly, and try to insure that they can extract money for just about everything novel you want to do with it, the Open Source nature of Android is going to allow people to do things with mobile devices that have been impossible to date (even on very powerful, but locked down, devices like the iPhone).

To me, it looks like Apple is going to make the same mistakes they made with the Mac years ago: Treating their application developers poorly by competing with them unfairly or simply locking them out of the market, disrespecting users that want to use their devices in ways not imagined by Jobs and treating them not as customers but enemies, and finally, denial that price is a major factor in peoples purchasing decisions.  If it plays out as it did in the PC wars, Apple will find that they have fewer applications for their devices, and a steadily declining market share (even as actual sales continue to increase, since the smart phone market is growing rapidly, and all ships rise in a growing market).  Since it isn’t Apple vs. Microsoft, this time, but instead Apple vs. Open Source (and openness in general), I know which side I’m on.  I’ve had a tendency to pull for the scrappy underdog in the past, and Apple has very frequently been the scrappy underdog…but unfortunately it’s an underdog with a Napoleon complex, so it’s not exactly a good choice for replacing the old tyrant.  But, luckily, this time around, we have a wide open alternative…and it’s actually really good and really easy to use.  Maybe the “Open Source on the desktop” movement, to date, has all been preparation for this moment…the moment when Open Source can finally be a great option for regular, non-technical, consumers.  I think that’s pretty exciting.  And we’ll just have to wait and see if Apple winds up on the wrong side of history, again.