Here is a personal perspective essay on the Android platform and the G1 handset, from first notice to first impression out-of-the box. I’d like to capture my perspective to date, before I begin developing applications for Android.
Facing Pre-release Hype
I had my very first impression of Android in early 2008 during a visit to code.google.com. When I read about an open mobile phone platform, I became very excited. I had been so interested in at least a flexible phone that I had come to know RAZR modding sites well (this one in particular). I was able to trick out my RAZR, but it didn’t seem to be very productive. It saved me neither time nor stress, but it gave me a pretty neat hobby over a couple weekends. Despite much modding, I found it difficult to do any Java programming for my Verizon-based RAZR phone.
I had my very second impression of Android when I downloaded the SDK and ran the emulator. I was actually surprised to see that the emulator presented only one choice: a phone with a touch screen and a qwerty keyboard. For some reason, I expected the possibility of a range of phones, from the tradition style of 12-key phones to thumbs-a-blazing qwerty keyboard phones. I don’t know why I expected 12-key phones, but the emulator helped to clear up my expectations. I was a little over-subscribed at the time to develop an application for a handset I wouldn’t own just yet. So, I set the SDK aside for a while.
I had my very third impression of Android when I went to Google I/O in May 2008. (This video shows what I saw, but with my own eyes.) The Android prototype handset received quite the ovation during the keynote, and the Android platform as a whole attracted very large crowds during the technical sessions. Android became quite the hype, and at the time, I didn’t know just what to think of it. From what I could tell, there were many startups just to build Android applications, and everyone wanted to get their hands on first handset to hit the market.
Meeting the G1
I had my first up-close impression of HTC’s G1 for T-Mobile (specification here) when a buddy at work gave me a demo a couple months ago. The G1 didn’t floor me like I expected. It seemed to miss a certain something… and I didn’t recognize what that something was until a week later. It’s not an iPhone killer. It is an iPhone alternative, though. I guess the hype of the G1 took my imagination a bit too far. I’m well aware of the iPhone/iPod Touch buzz. I won an iPod Touch for my wife when I went to SC07 (Yay! Mellanox!). She’s explored many applications for it, and we’ve found it taking the place of many out-dated, jealous devices and tiny appliances (one example: kitchen “egg” timer).
With the G1 around, the iPhone seems alive and well. Others might disagree with such a statement on the iPhone’s health, but I know more people who own an iPhone than I do people who even plan to get the G1. It seems the iPhone retains quite a market (don’t take it from me; I’m no economist), but Android offers something that iPhone doesn’t: access.
This point hit home with me when I downloaded the source and built it on my Ubuntu box. That is something I could not have done for a mobile phone until now. I’ve been wanting to develop software for handsets for many years. Today I can.
Getting the G1
I had my second up-close impression of the G1 when I met my own handset, with a new mobile phone plan with T-Mobile. This is where it gets a little embarrassing. The night before, I faced a lot of anticipation in jumping into smartphone territory. I was very excited to get the G1 for myself (from my wife, really). I start a new graduate program in engineering in a few months, and I need to make sure I keep my schedule in check. In fact, I use Google mail and calendar apps because they helped keep me from drowning during my highly oversubscribed undergraduate lifestyle. I know well just how powerful those applications are, and I could certainly imagine how much more powerful they would be when they become pervasive at my fingertips.
Better yet, I imagined all of the applications I could build for my phone. Though trained in the dark arts of VLSI, I have a software engineering background and actually prefer software over hardware development (for many reasons, which I won’t discuss here). Hacking handsets (especially in Android terms) is somewhere in-between. It’s software development, but you put it into your pocket and execute it in your hand. Sign me up!
I really enjoyed taking the G1 out of the box and powering it on. At this point, I didn’t even think about the iPhone; I had the iPhone killer thought out of my system. They don’t compare directly; I think people like to use an expression about “apples and oranges” here. After an hour of getting to know the G1, I realized I didn’t even know what phone number went with my phone. This places calls? It receives them, too? Oh, of course… it’s a phone, not a tiny, tiny laptop (would that be a palmtop?).
Playing with the G1
Experimenting with the handset, I find it to be superb overall. In fact, I can’t find a single aspect of its hardware that doesn’t exceed my expectations.
- It feels as though it’s just the right size.
- The touch screen is responsive and easy on my eyes.
- The battery works long hours (on 2G network settings).
- It’s call quality is excellent, and probably surpasses that of any phone I’ve owned yet (almost 10 years and counting). The RAZR comes close.
- It’s keyboard is well spaced for a thumb keyboard. I like it a lot more than I first thought I would. I especially like having a hard physical keyboard. I could never get used to a soft keyboard (that is, a software keyboard, like that of the iPhone).
- The trackball is a really nice addition. It fills the input gap between touch screen and keyboard.
- The camera is better than the first digital camera I owned. It’s far better than that of the RAZR.
- GPS is a really nice bonus.
- It has a MicroSD port, which provides plenty of room for music, photos, and application data.
3G isn’t available in my town, but 2G impresses me. Wifi covers up any major bandwidth issues when downloading dozens of apps or performing a major sync, but using wifi drains the battery much more quickly than using 2G.
When it comes down to it, I can only find substantial improvements for aspects which live in the software, and the Android team remains quite active (as seen in git activity). To sum up: damn, I’m impressed!
Living with the G1
Two hours out-of-the-box, I headed into the work session for the evening: technical writing. I immediately found a shift in my workflow thanks to Android. Nicole, my co-author, and I had been sending revisions back in forth in the days prior; now we were pair-writing (in the same room) to wrap up a chapter for submission. We wanted to have one master copy to save from the headaches of merging (we had a deadline!), so on each checkpoint, Nicole would send me a few paragraphs for a comb-through plus big-picture sanity check. GMail on my Eee 701 (the original Eee) is always cramped, but on the Android, it’s highly optimized. I found myself preferring the G1 (on which reading is surprisingly comfortable) over the Eee for reading. Over the hours, I appreciated being able to walk around (pacing) without being tied to a desk. It helped me keep my energy up at the tail end of a long workday as we burned midnight oil. Yes, I could have used the Eee, but the G1 provided a lot more freedom and allowed me to focus more on word usage and concept development, less on sitting at a computer. I’m reminded of my days taking printed drafts of my papers to the gym with an iPod; I could easily replace both with the new handset.
Three days later, I continue to find Android increasingly impressive as I use it and learn more about it. With my email, chat, and calendar always in reach, I find myself sitting down to more interesting things when I get to my desktop. Instead of catching up, I focus on either entertainment or development. Of course, this has mostly meant The Office and Android application development since I’ve received the handset… :-)
Now that Android is integrating nicely into my workflow/lifestyle, I’ll make it a point to check myself to make sure I don’t go overboard. It’s entertaining to see just how much I can fit into a single handset, but obviously some activities are more well-suited (and/or more efficient) on a desktop/notebook computer. Computer programming is the first thing to come to mind…
It seems my expectations on Android have gone through a bit of an annealing process. It has swung between “another gadget” and “life(style) changing” over the course of 2008 and into this month. It has settled down; it’s now a “really fantastic device” to me. It deserves much acclaim for people who are into that kind of thing.
I must note: I find a certain zen about Android and the G1. I’m very glad I cleaned up my social activity space when I declared social media bankruptcy back in October. Otherwise, I think that my G1 would only add more hyperactive, gotta-type-it-now social activity to my daily schedule.