Android: Lacks Polish, But Shows Promise - InformationWeek

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Mobile // Mobile Applications
12:05 PM
Eric Ogren
Eric Ogren

Android: Lacks Polish, But Shows Promise

After spending some time with Google's Android platform as realized on the HTC G1, I am reluctant to call it a 1.0 mobile operating system. So much is missing, it feels more like a 0.8 beta. But that shouldn't stop anyone from being excited about the possibilities.

After spending some time with Google's Android platform as realized on the HTC G1, I am reluctant to call it a 1.0 mobile operating system. So much is missing, it feels more like a 0.8 beta. But that shouldn't stop anyone from being excited about the possibilities.At yesterday's launch, we saw two different things showcased: The HTC G1 phone, and the Google Android platform. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Together they make for a powerful mobile computing platform that can only get better over time. How quickly Android will evolve, and how fast hardware manufacturers will roll out new Android-based phones is unknown, but there's a lot to be hopeful about.

First up, let's look at the heart of Android.

Android Mobile Operating System

Nokia called it years ago. It began referring to its N Series phones as "multimedia mobile computers." While that term seemed a little bit ahead of its time for what were then just really fancy cell phones, the term is an apt moniker for Android and the G1.

Android is the Linux-based core of what is primed to become a new breed of mobile computers that are used to access the Internet and Web-based services and applications. Smartphones are no longer just smart phones. They are more computer than phone, and are ready to surpass laptops at enhancing productivity. (For the moment, we're talking about personal productivity and not enterprise productivity.)

The user interface is an important aspect of how well phones work. If it is difficult, cumbersome, or not intuitive, many of the phone's features may go unused. Given the power of Android, that would be a shame. Good thing, then, that Google and Android's developers worked hard to make the user interface a joy to use. It may not be iPhone-easy, but it nearly is.

The home screen has an analog clock at the top, with four application icons running across the bottom of the screen. This home screen set-up is entirely user customizable. Pressing and holding the home screen will bring up the tool that's used to make adjustments to the home screen's appearance. It offers a bunch of choices. You can add, delete, or move icons, application shortcuts, bookmarks, and widgets at will. This means you can make the G1 -- and Android -- your own. You're not constrained to the rigid grid to which the iPhone adheres. Applications, shortcuts, and bookmarks can be thrown helter-skelter all over the desktop. Yes, the desktop. That's how the main screen functions, just as the desktop does on your computer. A quick swipe of the finger to the left or right brings you to two more pages where shortcuts can be stored.

A Google search bar is built into one of these pages. To be honest, I'm surprised it isn't on the G1's home screen.

By default, Android has four applications that are preloaded onto the desktop. They are the phone dialer, the contacts application, the browser, and Google Maps. The phone dialer program is almost identical in appearance and function to the iPhone's. Google didn't innovate very much here. The contacts application is passable. It is easy to scroll up and down through a large number of contacts very quickly, with little or no delay.

The browser is another story. It may lack Flash support, but it still does a phenomenal job of browsing the Web. When it comes to mobile devices, using a finger to navigate Web pages is simply the way to go. It is so much faster to just select what you want (as you would with a mouse on a PC), than it is to use a directional control pad to move a cursor around the phone's screen. Even with spotty 3G coverage in the demo hall, Web pages loaded in a snap and simply looked fantastic. The 3.5-inch display of the device helps a lot to make the browsing experience so good. Finding and setting bookmarks was a breeze, as was accessing other features of the browser.

The Android developers on hand at the event seemed most excited about the Google Maps with Street View and Compass setup. There's no doubt that it is quite impressive.

We all know what Street Views is, but adding the Compass feature turbocharges the experience. The Compass software links to the on-board accelerometer. When using Street Views with the Compass activated, panning the phone around actually pans the view the user sees of the area on the map. Let's say you're looking at the Empire State Building in Street Views. Using the Compass, you can look up at the top of the building, turn around and see what's across the street, or look up and down Fifth Avenue for other landmarks. This is a really neat application.

These four are just scratching the surface. There are tons more applications buried within Android, not including the forthcoming Android Market.

Below the four home apps is a little dock bar. Swipe the bar up and the full menu appears. This screen is filled with just over 20 additional applications. Here, all of the phone's settings, features, and applications can be accessed and altered. The menu appears and disappears quickly. It may be a simple grid of icons, but it works.

Push Gmail is supported, but you have to pull e-mail from any other service. No Microsoft Exchange support here, though Andy Rubin said that Google is relying on developers to make that functionality a reality. (Does that mean Google is too cheap to license ActiveSync?)

Other applications that will ship with this first-generation device include one called EcoRio, which helps determine your carbon footprint. Another is called ShopSavvy, which uses the phone's camera to scan a bar code on any retail product and instantly retrieve all the relevant sales information about that product that is published on the Web. ShopSavvy also will show where that product can be found, and how far you'll have to travel to get it. Yet another is the Amazon MP3 store. This provides direct access to Amazon's library of downloadable songs.

Here is a look at the user interface:

Who Is The Target?

Taking all of these factors into consideration, it is clear that Android is meant to be a consumer platform -- at least from the onset. Android may allow you to view Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files, but Andy Rubin did not mention anything about being able to edit them. Nor did Google even mention compatibility with its own Docs and Apps services. (We have to assume that Docs can at least be viewed via the browser.)

Android, in its current form, doesn't really provide the platform necessary for standard enterprise tasks. But enterprise support isn't out of the question. Adding a few simple things, such as ActiveSync, would change that.

It will take time for the developer base to really get behind Android and begin porting productivity applications to the platform. Until they do, Android and the G1 will remain a consumer play out of the box.

The funny part is, Android and the G1 sort of miss the mark on some basic features that consumers would be interested in.

The HTC G1

Consider this. The G1 is a large-ish device. It is bigger than most BlackBerry devices, and many Windows Mobile devices. I would not be interested in carrying such a large device unless it converges a lot of other things -- MP3 player, camera, etc. -- into one.

The G1 does have a basic music player on board, but no real video player. That's a shame, because the 3.5-inch display would make for a great screen for viewing video. On top of that, the G1 eschews a user-friendly headphone jack. Most headphones have a 3.5-mm plug at the end. If you want to listen to music with the G1, you'll have to use an awkward adapter.

The camera of the G1 may fire off shots at 3 megapixels, but the software controlling it is unrefined. Google seems to have taken another page from Apple here, in that there are very few controls to alter the settings of the camera. It also is very slow. After pressing the shutter button, don't be surprised to wait up to 10 seconds (yes, 10!!!) for the picture to be taken. That means you're going to miss some shots. Including a 3-megapixel camera with autofocus is great, but if it's going to perform poorly, it will be wasted silicon. The camera will not shoot video at all. The G1 may not call itself a multimedia device, but that's what has come to be expected of smartphones these days. There's a basic list of features that are necessary, and the G1 is missing several of them.

One good thing it has going for it is the touch capacitance screen. Unlike touch resistive screens, the screen of the G1 functions very much like the iPhone's. This means it is more repsonsive than the touch screen on devices such as the Samsung Instinct, or LG Voyager. The G1 may not have multitouch, but I didn't miss that functionality when I used the phone.

The G1 does have GPS, Wi-Fi, and T-Mobile's flavor of 3G, all necessary. It also has the capacity to support an 8 GB microSD card (though what you'll store on it, I have no idea).

Here is a look at the hardware via video:

Bottom Line

Despite the initial set of flaws and missing features, Android has a lot of potential -- far more potential than the iPhone's OS. The Linux core and free availability of the SDK mean the sky is the limit. Android can be a real contender with Windows Mobile and Nokia's S60, given time. Microsoft and Nokia already are behind the ball in terms of usability, even if their mobile platforms have the backing of the enterprise. If developers and Google continue to innovate as they already have, Android can take a big bite out of the market share of Windows, Palm, and Symbian, and possibly even BlackBerry OS.

I am looking forward to an exciting mobile road ahead with Android.

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