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Google's Android: A Quiet Revolution

The first phones sporting Google's open-source phone OS Android are set to be announced sometime today, courtesy of T-Mobile (my own cell provider, huzzah!). Android-powered phones are set to compete with the iPhone, Nokia's Symbian, Windows Mobile, and all the rest -- and the way I see it, it'll be in much the same way Google itself competed with AltaVista, Yahoo Search, and so on: quietly, but decisively.

The first phones sporting Google's open-source phone OS Android are set to be announced sometime today, courtesy of T-Mobile (my own cell provider, huzzah!). Android-powered phones are set to compete with the iPhone, Nokia's Symbian, Windows Mobile, and all the rest -- and the way I see it, it'll be in much the same way Google itself competed with AltaVista, Yahoo Search, and so on: quietly, but decisively.

When Google was still a guys-in-a-garage experiment, the very concept of guys in a garage creating a hit Web site was still hugely novel: the infrastructure for doing such things was nothing like what we have now. Plus, there seemed no end of search systems, with little overriding reason to quit using them. But once people started trying Google, it quickly became clear that the Google way of doing things was just plain better. Keep the start page simple; give people a good spread of relevant search results on the first page; and so on. Before Google, I used an aggregate engine called Dogpile. After Google, everything else just seemed redundant.

So how does any of this apply to phones? From what I've seen of Android's interface, the same keep-it-simple-and-relevant thinking applies there, too. People see a search engine as a means, not an end in itself; they use it to get to something. The same goes for a phone: the less time I have to spend fiddling with the phone and the quicker I can make my call and get to the guy on the other end, the better. Or get information about what movie theaters are in my neck of the woods when I'm in a different city, or how to drive across town without getting horribly mobbed, or ... you get the idea.

How's this different from the way, say, Apple does things, since the iPhone seems to take much the same tack? Apple designed the iPhone as a thing-in-itself -- it's as much a status symbol and technology landmark as it is a tool, and I feel like the first two points often get in the way of the third. Google's approach has been to let the power of the tool speak for itself without the branding or the (pardon the pun) chrome. Put that into the hands of people who want a powerful, easy-to-use phone -- especially one that doesn't cost a ton of money, require you to use a specific network, or have other lock-ins -- and watch the gravitation begin. It doesn't have to happen with fanfare or clever marketing; it's just something people will see for themselves.

Give it a few years, and one day we'll wake up and discover that a good chunk of our phones are running Android -- much like we woke up one day and realized Google was pretty much everyone's search engine. If they build it, people will come.