Touching The Android: It's No iPhone, But It's Close

So today I finally got to touch an Android phone. T-Mobile, Google, and HTC put on a big media circus in New York City (see our live notes), complete with Google co-founders Sergey and Larry coming out on rollerblades to tell us how cool the phone is because you can hack it just like a computer. (Sergey wrote an app that uses the built-in accelerometer to measure how long it takes for the phone to hit the floor when you throw it in the air because, well, he’s a geek). And you really have to keep that in mind. There will be many Android phones, and they will all get better over time. It’s a platform, yada, yada, yada.

The T-Mobile G1 is $20 cheaper than the iPhone, at $180 for existing customers, and comes with two data plans: $25 a month (with unlimited Web access and limited text messaging) and $35 a month (with unlimited everything). It goes on sale October 22 at T-Mobile stores, but existing customers can begin pre-ordering on the Web already. Expect a huge marketing push. This will be the biggest marketing campaign in T-Mobile’s history. (Although they didn’t say it at the press conference, I suspect Google is footing the tab). The commercials are already out on YouTube.

But how does this one stack up against the one and only iPhone? It doesn’t have quite the finish of the iPhone (both in terms of hardware or user interface), but it comes pretty damn close. (John Biggs at CrunchGear calls it “almost perfect”). And more importantly, it matches the iPhone on many fronts. It’s got GPS, WiFi, a touchscreen, an accelerometer, a camera, Gmail, Google Maps, a Webkit-based browser (just like Safari on the iPhone), and an App market.

The first Android phone even has some things that the iPhone doesn’t, like a full keyboard that flips out from under the screen like on a Danger Sidekick (Andy Rubin’s old company). And it also sports a nubby little scroll ball like on a Blackberry (I thought RIM had a patent on that). And did I mention the compass? It’s got one built in (in addition to the accelerometer and the GPS), so that when you look at StreetView on Google Maps and swing the phone around it shows you a picture of what you are facing. Some developer is going to write a cool hiking app that taps into the compass, I’m sure. Oh, and there’s one more thing. You can run more than one app at the same time. That’s huge.

But is that it? Is that Google’s answer to the iPhone—a keyboard and a compass? I’m afraid so. There are a few other minor things the Android G1 can do that the iPhone can’t. The e-mail is push instead of pull, so you are always up to date. (Although, oddly enough, you can already push and sync emails, contacts, and calendars with Microsoft Exchange on the iPhone, but not with any other mail server). And anything you do in a Google app, whether in email or Calendar, is automatically synced to your Google account. (Hear that, you Meshers at Microsoft?). The phone comes with a music player that can play any DRM-free songs, and a link to Amazon’s MP3 store. Take that, iTunes.

The touchscreen interface lets you swipe pages or drag and drop things around. When you scroll through your contact list, a tab appears on the touchscreen that you can pull down for faster scrolling, which is nice feature. And search is built into every part of the phone. You can do “deep” presses a dedicated search button to initiate a search in practically any app.

But remember, in the end this is not really about Android versus the iPhone. It’s about Web phones versus the brick in your pocket. Simply matching the iPhone on many of these features—especially Web browsing and email—is going to be enough to help redefine the mobile market. The table stakes have just been raised. From now on, phones need to be nearly as capable as computers. All others need not apply.