But as time has passed, I have felt the desire, if not the need, to be able to access the Internet when I'm away from my computer - to get directions, or to check my email. I've been watching reports about Google's Android mobile phone operating system, and when the first Android phone - T-Mobile's G1 - was released, I checked it out, liked what I saw, and decided to give it a try. After two weeks of use, I've come to like it very much and I'm going to keep it. What follows may look like a review but it isn't. I don't pretend to be comprehensive here. If you want to read more, try this short review at Engadget or this long and very thorough review by Matthew Miller over at C|Net. I'm just offering a few general - and generally positive - thoughts about the G1 and Android, for what it's worth.
The G1 hardware
As a piece of hardware, the G1 isn't perfect, but it's very good. True, it's not quite as sleek and sexy as Apple's iPhone, but it's pretty attractive - compared, say, to Microsoft's Zune, the G1 is a super-model. My thirteen-year old daughter thinks the G1 is very cool, and she especially likes the way it opens to reveal a keyboard, so it passes the thirteen-year old "what's cool" test. And as a grown up, I am aware that looks aren't everything.
The iPhone's minimalist hardware design reflects Apple CEO Steve Jobs's personal devotion to the KISS principle. Apple has never released a a multi-button mouse. Like the Mighty Mouse or the iPod, the iPhone gives users a single hardware control and makes it work very hard. I grant that it's brilliantly done - but ultimately, a slightly more complex hardware design would serve users better. The G1 has six hardware buttons, one of which is also a track-ball. The presence of multiple hardware buttons has the same benefit on a phone as on a camera. Serious digital SLRs like my Pentax K20D have buttons on the body that give the photographer one-touch access to functions that, on "easier" cameras, are buried in menus or accessible only through non-obvious shortcuts. In the same way, the G1's buttons make the phone easy to use.
The keyboard is pretty well designed, too. Many reviewers of the G1 who are also familiar with the iPhone have opined that a hardware keyboard allows for faster, more accurate text input than Apple's virtual keyboard. I'm not entirely sure about that. I have only a little experience with it but the iPhone's virtual keyboard does seem very well designed and, judging from this YouTube video, an experienced user can indeed input text quickly and accurately on the iPhone. But I'm pretty sure that the G1's hardware keyboard is not worse than the iPhone's virtual one and I suspect that, if you want to type a lot and especially if you want to type with correct punctuation, the G1's keyboard is a bit more efficient. And the G1 has an advantage in another respect. While at first, a "closed" G1 looks like its display is smaller than the iPhone's, when you flip out the G1's keyboard, the G1 actually seems to have the advantage, because 100% of the G1's display is still used for display, while a good portion of the iPhone's is taken up with the virtual keyboard. I do want to add that I wish that Android provided a simple virtual keyboard that could be quickly accessed when the phone is not flipped open. There are times when I would like to type just a few letters or numbers, and it would be nice to be able to do so without having to flip open the phone and change its orientation. Perhaps that will be added in a future release of the OS. There's no chance, on the other hand, that your iPhone will get a software update that gives you a physical keyboard.
I have two gripes about the hardware and both have already been voiced by most reviwer's. First, the phone's "chin" seems to get in your way on the right side as you type. But I'm getting used to it. Second, I wish I could plug in earphone's while the phone is being recharged, but I can't.
I should add a comment about battery life. Like many new users, I noticed that the phone's battery seemed to deplete very quickly. But I have learned how to reduce the draw upon the battery (for instance, by turning off GPS satellite use) and by letting the battery run down completely before recharging I've been able to get a longer-lasting charge.
Finally, I find that the G1 works pretty well as a phone. When I'm within range of a wi-fi hotspot, I can use wi-fi for my phone connection, which seems to improve reception and also saves me money by not counting against my minutes. My older T-Mobile phone never worked well at home. The G1 does work fine here, because it's getting its signal from our home network, which provides a pretty strong signal. I am starting to use the G1 for work from my home office in preference to using Skype, which has had numerous problems of its own.
Android, Google's mobile phone operating system
As for the Android OS, I like it a lot. Not surprisingly, it is well suited to users like me who already rely heavily on Google's various online apps, especially Gmail and the Google calendar. I do hope that future versions of Android provide better support for Picasa Web Albums and Google Docs and Spreadsheets.
The Android GUI is attractive and generally easy to use. It took me about 1 minute to set up the phone initially: I simply provided the username and password for one of my Google accounts and I was off to the races. The built-in apps for Gmail and Google calendar work pretty well. Unfortunately, they are tied to a single Google account. If like me, you have several accounts, well, that's a problem. You could have messages from the other accounts forwarded to the account you use on the G1, but as far as I can tell, you can't select different FROM accounts when you send mail in the G1's Gmail application, the way you can when you access Gmail on your computer. I use my william-porter.net account as my primary account now, and I access my software business account (polytrope.com) and my old personal Gmail account using the G1's web browser. It's a little more awkward to get email using the browser, but it's also possible to do certain things that can't be done in the Gmail app, like edit the quoted text to delete unnecessary stuff.
I could say a lot more about my experience with the user interface and the various apps that I've come to use, but I simply want to note that what I like most about Android is its configurability or openness. It's quite easy to put your favorite shortcuts on the G1's three-panel desktop. I'm able to call my wife, or get into my bank's web site, or see today's calendar, with a single touch of the phone. If I'm lost on the road, a single touch turns on the GPS satellite (for the most accurate positioning), another touch opens Google Maps and a quick third touch tells me where the hell I am.
The Android Marketplace is full of free apps that can be downloaded to the phone. I've downloaded a pretty decent free dictionary (Free Dictionary Org), a shortcut-making app (AnyCut) that gives me a lot of options for configuring the way I use the phone, an amazingly capable photo editing app (PicSay) that lets me edit photos taken with the phone's amazingly capable 3 MP camera, a simple notepad (OI Notepad), and an app that lets me manage my ToodleDo tasks on the phone (TooDo). I've even downloaded a few songs from Amazon.com's MP3 market. Price is the same per song as Apple's iTunes Music Store, but the songs come without DRM limitations, which I'm pleased about. I'm going to download a utility that lets me take a riff from a Tom Petty song and turn it into my own ringtone. Neat. (I could do the same thing with the C# fugue from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier but I respect Bach too much to use music I myself have performed in public for a ringtone. I hope Tom Petty won't take this personally.) The one thing that seems to be missing from the Android Marketplace is a database app. Maybe I should get the Android API and see if I could write one myself, but I'll probably just wait for somebody smarter to do it for me. The way new apps are appearing for Android, I don't think I will have to wait long.
It's not an iPhone - but that's the point
As I confessed at the start of this post, I never bought into the iPhone thing, so I am not handicapped by comparisons to the iPhone. What I gather from the reviews of the G1 that I've read is that the G1 is not as mature as the iPhone but that it's already off to a better start than the first iPhone. But what matters more to me is that the G1 and Android are taking a completely different path from the one that Apple has chosen. In this, Google shows how much smarter it is than Microsoft, which generally seems to imitate Apple without being aware that Microsoft can never be Apple, just as a 800 lb gorilla can never be a gazelle. Google knows what it's good at, though. It's good at offering apps and services that aren't locked into anybody's specific platform. By making Android an open-source project, Google has produced something that might almost be called an anti-OS. Microsoft looks increasingly irrelevant.
Postscript: I've just learned that a virtual keyboard is on the road map for future Android development and should be part of a Q1 2009 upgrade to the OS. Cool.