Google's ambitious Android

Why I think Google's mobile OS has the edge on Apple's iPhone

Why I think Google's mobile OS has the edge on Apple's iPhone

Natasha Lomas got her hands on a smartphone running Google's Android OS. How does it compare to the iPhone? Read on...

Not so long ago I wrote an article called Five reasons I don't miss my 3G iPhone - my opinion on my brief liaison with Apple's hardware.

A little more recently, I got my hands on another device: HTC's G1 – a smartphone powered by Google's Android. The G1 landed on my desk in a garish box appliquéd with a pick 'n' mix of webby vignettes. Packaging be damned - only fools fall in love with cardboard dreams.

Relieving the box of the G1 and USB charger, I had the phone up and running in minutes. Set-up means inputting your Google sign-in credentials. If you don't have a Google account you have to create one - but honestly, if you're not already Google's drone why on earth are you buying Google's phone?

And that really was that. Android was alive in minutes and has been alive ever since (brief battery life aside). Gmail email is one click away. Gtalk is accessible from places it probably shouldn't be. Google Maps is as excellent as ever – but better still because of built-in GPS which, in my experience (in London), has been solid as a rock.

The G1 also has a built-in compass which, when mashed up with Google Street View, is the perfect antidote to being lost in the urban jungle. (Check out this very echoy YouTube video for a demo if you haven't already come across this feature.) Or at least it will be when Google finishes eyeing up our highways and byways and launches Street View UK.

Beyond Google-branded services, the most salient point to make about Android is it delivers on another much more fundamental level: it's intuitive to use. No guide needed to find your way round the UI or negotiate the browser; icons and functions have the forethought to be where and what they should be. Which means it's - shock! horror! – easy (and fun) to use.

At this point Apple fans will point out that it-just-works intuition also applies to the iPhone. And there's no doubt Apple's baby has plenty to boast about in that department. But Android has a few more feathers in its cap: it's an open phone where Apple has built a closed shop. And where Apple has one phone - one way of doing things - Google plots many.

Take the hardware. The iPhone essentially has one input method (touch), while the G1 arms you with an excellent capacative touchscreen, a full Qwerty keyboard and throws in a scrollwheel to boot – just because it can. Multiple input options may make for a less pleasing hardware aesthetic but productivity soars with such a dextrous orchestra at your fingertips.

But of course it's important not to get too hung up on the G1. There will be other very different Android phones, with other form factors, made by other mobile creators. The Android army will have many faces and figures. Therefore it is probably going to evolve in leaps and bounds - quite unlike, I suspect, the smoothly controlled iterations of Apple's iPhone roadmap.

Which is precisely what makes Android so interesting and potentially disruptive.

Everything is theoretically possible for Android phones in hardware terms (any manufacturer can freely use the OS) – and in software terms too of course. Moreover, anything can be uploaded to the Android Marketplace and thus downloaded to your phone.

Provided the developers come, Android lets them build it.

In short: Google's mobile OS delivers a lot to be excited about. An upstart Android may be but it sure isn't short of ambition.

Google's out-of-the-box usability is a big selling point here, as is the absence of a licence fee which should encourage the launch of more and cheaper Android-powered smartphones. And the apps - thin on the ground at the moment - will surely follow as Google phones proliferate, putting organic flesh on Android's bones.

Should we expect an Android business phone? Considering the topsy-turvy smartphone world these days it would be madness to rule it out. After all Apple's ultimate consumer toy has now licensed Microsoft ActiveSync for Exchange email access. And BlackBerry-maker RIM is shouting about its touchscreen media-playing gadget Storm. This really is the smartphone world turned upside down.

For Google's part, it already has fingers in SME pies with its software-as-a-service portfolio (Google Apps). Looked at from that angle – and considering the increasing importance of mobility to businesses - Android is the obvious next step in a Google enterprise push. So watch this space.