Monday, October 6, 2008

The gPhone Cometh!

Well, folks, the other shoe has finally dropped. Google has entered the mobile phone space. And the iPhone has it's first serious competitor. Allow me to introduce you to the HTC G1.


What's that you say? You haven't seen or heard anything about it? Not surprising, as Google is easing into this market. If the iPhone was the shot heard 'round the world, the G1 release was the equivalent of a BB-Gun. First of all, they launched with T-Mobile, the bastard red-headed adopted and later abandoned step-child of the mobile phone industry. Second, they partnered with handset manufacturer HTC, which is not exactly a household name these days. And finally, Google itself is not really promoting the phone. If there is such a thing as under-hyping a product, that's what Google is doing.

Critical error or clever tactic? To understand Google's angle, we first need to look at what Google has invested. Unlike Apple, who branded their entire phone as an Apple product, Google is clearly okay with T-Mobile and HTC having branding rights. And in reality, Google didn't have the kind of creative influence over the G1 that Apple had over the iPhone. That's not Google's game. The search giant doesn't want it's own phone. What it really wants is to *be* on EVERY phone. That's why it bought the Android operating system in the first place.

Hmmm, I guess some background is in order for those non-geeks among us. The operating system of a phone is essentially its brain. It controls the all-important user-interface. You know, that menu structure and application list that you either hate or are in-love with? That's the operating system, or O/S in geek-speak. Google, in it's neverending quest for new strategic directions, decided to pursue ad-revenue via mobile phones. And to that end, it figured the most efficient course of action was to own an operating system that could be deployed on ANY mobile phone. Thus, a couple of years ago it purchased Android, a small company with a slick mobile phone O/S. And in the meantime while the O/S was marinating, Google perfected a suite of mobile applications that can be accessed from ANY mobile phone. Seriously. Any mobile phone. Point your mobile browser at http://m.google.com. Go there right now. I can wait. No, really, go right now. You'll thank me later. Cool, right? Search, Maps, Gmail, Calendar, Docs, News, Photos, etc. All tailor-made for mobile phones. It turns any phone with a data connection into a smart-phone. Yes, even that $14.99 Pay-Go phone from AT&T. Google's throwing a party and EVERYONE'S invited, not just those who can afford $300 for an iPhone and a $100/month phone bill. (You can see where this is going, right? I struggle with concealing my bias.)

So, even though the HTC G1 seems like a half-hearted release into a space that Apple is dominating, it is only a first step for Google. Soon there will be an army of phones running Google's Android O/S. And the true beauty of Android is that, unlike the iPhone, it is an open platform. Anyone can develop an application without paying the Apple tax. So, while you can still shop on the Android marketplace for vetted, proven apps, it will only be a matter of time until FREE (ad-driven, ironically) or cheap application stores open and begin to spread. Google's plan is that you'll either have a Google phone, or you'll have a phone that can run Google apps. Market dominance built on top of an open platform. Can it really happen? We'll see. Google is running a marathon, not a sprint. So it could easily be another year until we see a critical mass of gPhones. At the same time, Apple's a one trick pony. It's the iPhone or nothing...

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, there's still the G1 that T-Mobile just released. Is is it worth your dollar? With a touchscreen and a full QWERTY keyboard, it had me at hello. Those on-screen keyboards (ala iPhone, Instinct, Dare, et al) all SUCK! But, alas, the G1 is still on T-Mobile's network. In all seriousness, I have a soft spot in my geek heart for T-Mobile. They are the "Little Engine That Could" of the mobile industry. But they need some more freakin cell towers, plain and simple. Until then, much like the Lakers, all the G1 will do is get you excited, and then disappoint you when you give it your full attention. Don't get me wrong, it is a geek's wet dream:



But, regular folks should wait till next year. By early summer 2009, the mobile phone game will have changed. Permanently. A Storm is coming. A Blackberry Storm.
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