Between now and the end of the year, a wave of new wireless smart phones running Android, Google Inc.’s much-discussed but so far little-seen operating system, will crash onto U.S. shores from makers such as Motorola Inc., Samsung Electronics Co. and LG Electronics Inc.
The first of these, the inelegantly named “myTouch 3G With Google,” goes on sale from Deutsche Telekom AG’s T-Mobile unit next week. I’ve been trying the myTouch for a week or so, and while there are some nice touches, it isn’t going to make you throw aside your iPhone, BlackBerry or Palm Pre and run down to the neighborhood electronics store to grab one.
Then again, that doesn’t seem to be Google’s game here: By making Android an open platform available to handset makers at no cost, it aims to establish the operating system as a de facto standard for the mass of wireless users intrigued by the new generation of smart phones but who haven’t yet made the leap.
Until now, the only Android phone in the U.S. was the G1, a handset made for T-Mobile by Taiwan-based HTC Corp. The myTouch, which is already on sale in the U.K., Canada, Germany and Hong Kong from carriers including Orange and Vodafone as the HTC Magic, is an improvement on the earlier model. T-Mobile is selling it for $199.99 with a two-year contract, starting Aug. 5.
Narrower, Lighter, Thicker
The myTouch is narrower, slightly thicker and, at a bit more than 4 ounces (0.1 kilogram), slightly lighter than Apple Inc.’s iPhone. Six buttons are arrayed below the bright, crisp 3.2-inch touchscreen, along with a trackball that in use seems a bit superfluous.
The slim size, which lets it fit comfortably into purse or pocket, can turn into a bit of a liability when it comes time to tap out an e-mail or quick text message. Unlike Palm Inc.’s Pre and most of the BlackBerry models from Research in Motion Ltd., there’s no physical keyboard, and the size may be pushing the limits of practicality for on-screen typing. Try as I might, I found the keyboard almost unusable in vertical, or portrait, mode. A quarter-turn counter-clockwise brought up a more comfortable landscape-mode keyboard that, of course, cut off more of the screen.
The myTouch includes a 3.2 megapixel camera and the ability to send photos and videos via text messages — a feat U.S. iPhone users still await. Pictures, videos and music are stored on a 4-gigabyte microSD card. While the phone supports stereo Bluetooth, using the included earbuds or other wired headphones is a bit of a pain: There’s no stereo jack, so you have to use a special adapter that plugs into the same mini-USB port that the phone also uses for charging. In other words — another thing to lose.
The Android operating system on the myTouch uses a window- shade approach; program icons that you don’t keep on the home screen slide up from the bottom at the touch of an onscreen button, while the top can be rolled down to show various notifications. You can also slide the home screen from side to side, creating more desktop space for icons.
As befits a phone running software from Google, the myTouch excels at search. In particular, I had a fair amount of fun using the voice function, which worked surprisingly well in interpreting my spoken instructions.
Among other things, the myTouch understood and accurately executed searches for “Mexican restaurants,” “hardware stores” and “tuxedos,” using its global positioning system to tailor the results to my location. The myTouch even understood “Nouriel Roubini” — it dropped the “o” in the New York University economist’s last name, but I won’t hold that against it.
Android’s wireless synching with Google’s Gmail, calendar and other Web services works seamlessly, but you needn’t be tethered to Google to get the most out of the phone; setting up Yahoo and even Apple’s MobileMe e-mail accounts were a snap, and the phone also synchs with Microsoft Outlook mail, though not its other functions.
After a slow start, the number of programs for Android phones is growing; it’s now over 6,000. Apps are ordered and acquired wirelessly over the myTouch itself; while many seem to lack the polish of those available for the iPhone, that may change as more Android phones hit the market, building a broader audience that encourages more developers.
Much like the early personal-computer era, competitors are scrambling to establish beachheads in the smart phone market from which they can expand. In that light, the myTouch 3G is probably less important for what it does than for what it represents: the vanguard of the Google invasion.
(C) (Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)